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Change may cut fines, stops for plate frames

Citizen Staff Writer



A law that went into effect Jan 1. banning license plate frames that obscure our state name may be amended to lessen fines and prohibit police from citing motorists solely for that offense.

HB 2010 recently passed through the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But a Senate version could be held up by Gov. Jan Brewer’s mandate that only bills dealing with the state budget crisis be sent to her desk in the near term.

“All bills are being held now because the leadership only wants to hear bills on the budget,” Rep. Frank Antenori, R-Vail, said Monday.

“Everything is in limbo right now,” Antenori, a first-term legislator who sits on that House committee, said.

The amended bill would retain the requirement that the state name on license plates be clearly visible, but would reduce first-time fines on frame violations from $130 to $30. A second violation in a year would carry a $100 fine.

The existing law is not producing a sea of citations by law enforcement agencies eager to generate revenues, records show.

But the law is generating irritation for drivers who question the need for it, and among those who hold strong feelings about the messages on plate frames they were forced to remove.

“It means a lot to me and my buddies,” David Hampton, A U.S. Navy veteran who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969, said recently.

Hampton reluctantly removed a brass Vietnam Veteran license plate frame from his vehicle after the law went into effect.

“Apparently the saguaro cactus was not enough to prove it was an Arizona license, even though three-fourths of the word ‘Arizona’ was plainly visible,” he commented.

A recent informal survey in the parking lot of a busy shopping center indicated that most drivers there – about 95 percent – heard and heeded the word that such plates are now banned.

“I heard about it and checked my three vehicles,” said Rick Oliver, who operates coin-cashing devices in area supermarkets, adding “$130 is stiff.”

Though the state Legislature approved the law – at the request of the Arizona Department of Public Safety – in 2006, it did not go into effect until the start of this year.

Plate frames that obscure all or part of the state name can make it difficult for crime witnesses to positively tell whether a vehicle is registered in Arizona, DPS officials have said.

“If a witness can tell us that a vehicle has an Arizona plate because they can see it clearly, it helps us immensely,” DPS spokesman Harold Sanders said shortly before the law went into effect.

Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford, sponsored the amended law that is winding its way through the Legislature.

“It leaves total discretion to the officer,” he said.

Konopnicki said he has heard from constituents stopped and cited for plate frames that merely touched the state name.

He is concerned that the law could be used to justify profiling-related traffic stops.

“The probable cause issue is a major issue for me,” Konopnicki said.

The Arizona Motor Vehicles Division authorizes 45 different plate designs, according to the agency’s Web site. The special plates cost extra, with some of proceeds going to organizations represented on the plate surface.

Some of those plates, while legal, don’t look anything like the most common and familiar design on most passenger vehicles, Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, noted recently.

But Arizona is far from leading the nation in special plates: Maryland has more than 300 authorized designs, Farley noted.

Farley, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he favors retention of the requirement that the state name be visible to law enforcement officers because it does provide a means to identify vehicles registered to owners in Arizona.

“Our license plates should be limited to three or four types – standard, handicap, commercial and governmental,” D.E. Story, a Pima County deputy sheriff from 1977 to 2003, said recently.

Story added that the “offense is a nonmoving administrative violation” but carry fines “as high or higher than what moving or criminal traffic citations were some years ago.”

Others suspect other motives drove the plate frame law.

“I have 20-20 vision and am unable to make out the word Arizona at any distance beyond 60 feet,” said motorist Vern Spohn, a critic of the law.

“So what is the purpose of this law anyway?” he said. “So speed cameras can photograph your plate?”

Easier ID drives law limiting plate frames

Plate frame citations

Data is through February.

All reporting courts jurisdictions statewide: 194

A partial breakdown:

• Scottsdale: 29

• Tucson: 27*

• Pima County Justice, 27

• Surprise: 19

• Douglas: 17

• Goodyear: 10

• Yuma: 6

• Marana: 1

• Sahuarita: 1

*end of first week of March

Other voices:

“We gave it about a week and took it off,” motorist Leslie Turner said recently.

“I don’t want to be hit with the fine,” fiance José Perez added.

“I think political officials lay awake at night trying to find more ways to squeeze a little more money out of our pockets,” Phillip Beckler, a motorist, commented.

“I don’t see how the frames impede eyewitnesses. The word ‘Arizona’ is much smaller than the numbers,” motorist Dennis Oliver said.

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