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This story was first published in the August 5, 1993 Philadelphia City Paper. Since then the color of Pennsylvania's license plates have changed but not the conditions reported here.
The name has been changed to protect the identity of my neighbor.
IN THE 1980'S
SHOPPING FOR A NEW CAR CAUSES "STICKER SHOCK" BECAUSE PRICES SOAR.
IN THE 1990'S
STICKER SHOCK HAPPENS WHEN YOU FIND THE CORNER OF YOUR PENNSYLVANIA LICENSE PLATE CUT OFF.
A phone call alerts my neighbor Mike. "A guy's messing with the back of your car right now." Mike rushes out but the guy's gone. And he has taken with him the corner of Mike's license plate containing his new 1994 registration sticker.
Mike doesn't phone 911; he wants to go out looking for the thief. The caller gives him this description: skinny white kid with blond hair; mid thirties, baseball hat and dark shirt. "Which way did he go?" asks Mike. "He walked towards Third Street" is the reply.
A crime in broad daylight, in front of your own house, can make you do regrettable things. Some people regret ignoring the crime but Mike's out after the guy with his gun.
Mike sees a man fitting the description just two blocks away. He drives his car onto the sidewalk, leaps out, and orders the guy to freeze. Mike's big; he lifts and carries heavy things for a living and he looks it. Infuriated, he could intimidate just about anyone. The man stands still and denies doing anything wrong. "Empty your pockets" Mike yells. Out come eight license plate corners.
Mike told me he was surprised the guy had more than just his one sticker but it makes sense. The same thieves looking inside our cars for something worth breaking a window to steal also know how to turn registration stickers into cash.
After I heard Mike's story I did a little research. A stolen registration sticker carefully peeled off the plate's corner, goes for $25 or more. $100 can buy you a good registration sticker and a counterfeit inspection sticker. In Pennsylvania, these are needed to make a car appear legally registered.
The mutilated license plates we see are the unintended consequence of mandatory auto insurance laws and stricter enforcement of penalties for driving under the influence. The Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle code says a car owner needs insurance to get a registration sticker, state inspection, and license plate. They can also get their plate taken away for drunk driving violations.
Hit and run. Some people speed away from the scene of an accident they caused because they don't have a legal plate. Or they have no insurance pay for repairs or the victim's medical bills. These drivers cause more than a minor assault on our "quality of life". Traffic accident victims get abandoned and bleed to death.
On the other hand, having a stolen sticker or license plate causes relatively few problems for the perpetrator. If they are stopped for a minor traffic violation, the police might run a computer check on the driver's license, license plate, and registration. Possession of an illegal sticker is an $89 violation and the plates can be confiscated. The cop also has the discretion to add the charge "Possession of Stolen Property".
These threats do not stop people who live outside the motor vehicle code. [The 1997 law to seize the vehicle has not been enforced.}
If the sticker shock victim ignores the missing sticker and is pulled over, they too can be fined $89. The mutilated license plate itself should also be replaced. If it is missing a letter it will attract unwanted police attention. The cheapest way to apply for a new license plate is at a State Police Barracks.
"The sale and use of illegal stickers are a huge problem throughout SE Pennsylvania" said Corporal Reginald Harrison at the Belmont Barracks. He is in charge of the counterfeit document task force for this area. "People are coming in here day and night to apply for replacement plates." Of the two to three hundred citations written by the troopers assigned to these barracks every week, twenty to thirty involve stickers. He matched my story of eight corners in a pocket with one about licenses on every car on an entire block clipped overnight.
Philadelphia Police Captain John Collins, of the 6th District in Center City, said he can see the results of these thefts but only rarely does the victim report them to the police. He didn't know which neighborhoods the thieves are hitting
In a no nonsense voice, Captain Collins said, "The crime is theft. It's an offense where police can make an arrest on the word of a witness. The suspect will be held and processed and the arrest will be added to his criminal record. Even if he is released, it can make his re-arrest something for which he will be prosecuted."
Should you report a minor theft? In going around the City and taking photos to illustrate this article, cars with mutilated plates clustered around areas with lots of apartments. The thief returns again and again because he knows apartment dwellers are more likely to close their eyes to conditions outside their front door than homeowners are. Reporting a theft is sometimes the only thing you can do to dissuade the thief from returning.
The most effective legal way to avoid sticker shock is to install a frame around your license plate. You want a frame that takes more than one minute to take off.
One minute is too long for a thief to be looking over his shoulder, not for the cops but to see if the owner of the car is around and is a guy like my neighbor, Mike.
Mike ends up regretting he took the gun. He knows he can get arrested too. Mike gives the thief a heavy warning about staying off our block and then lets the guy go. Seven stolen corners and a box cutter go down the sewer inlet. Mike did not report the theft to the police.
Unreported thefts are unseen by the police.
The rest of the license plates on our block remain unmutilated so the thief is probably working elsewhere now. (Mike is my neighbor, not yours.)
A thief walks or drives around looking. If they see easy money and with little risk of being caught they steal. They might cut off the corner of your license plate or rip out your car radio; they might even break a back window to go into your house. If you're the next victim, report it. If you catch a thief, don't let him go.
Meanwhile, no changes in the sticker registration law are pending for motorists of the Keystone state.
October 2000 update: PennDOT has just decided that window stickers will replace license plate stickers BUT ONLY for autos registered in the county of Philadelphia. I guess this means sticker theives will go out of town in order to keep their unlicensed, uninsured cars on the road.