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California Temporary License Plates on New Vehicles

I’ve never bought a new vehicle in any state other than California. I’m guessing this happens in other states too, but the way it works in California is that you won’t get your actual metal license plates from the California Department of Motor Vehicles until several weeks after you actually drive your vehicle home from the dealership. It used to be that during this time, the only license plate you would have is a paper license plate that usually just had the name and logo of the dealership on it for advertising purposes. Once you got your metal license plates in the mail, you’d install them and throw your paper dealership license plates away.

As you can probably guess, having no way to uniquely identify a vehicle for several weeks caused problems. There was no way to catch drivers who would evade automated toll systems at bridge crossings, for instance. FasTrak is a common system in California while in the Midwestern US and East Coast, E-ZPass is more common. Drivers of new vehicles could avoid parking tickets too. It was difficult to track vehicles used in crimes (e.g. bank robberies) as well.

If you live in California, you may have noticed that starting in 2019, new vehicles started coming from the dealership with temporary license plates that look like this one. Instead of a paper plate that just had the dealership’s name and logo on it, the new temporary license plate comes with a unique identifying number that is assigned to that particular vehicle until the metal permanent license plate arrives.

The reason behind this change is — not surprisingly if you are reading this post — that the law in California on this topic changed. The short-version of the background is it originated as a bill in the California State Assembly (AB516) in the 2015-2016 legislative session. AB516 was signed in to law on July 25, 2016 by then California Governor Jerry Brown. The work required to implement the new law took some time to do — see California Vehicle Code section 4456.2 — so it wasn’t until January 1, 2019 that newly purchased or leased vehicles started coming with paper temporary license plates from the dealership.

You can read the entirety of AB516 here, if you wish, and also see what California statute sections it either added or amended. The actual section that mandates dealerships install paper temporary license plates before new vehicles leave the lot is actually California Vehicle Code section 4456(a)(8) which provides that:

“When selling a vehicle, dealers and lessor-retailers shall report the sale using the reporting system described in Section 4456.2. After providing information to the reporting system, the dealer or lessor-retailer shall do all of the following:

(8) If the vehicle does not display license plates previously issued by the department, the dealer or lessor-retailer shall attach the temporary licenseplates issued by the reporting system.” (emphasis added)

As always, this post is only meant to be a superficial discussion of a legal topic. If you read AB516 yourself, you’ll see that there it contains other components that I have not discussed, such as the penalties for forging a temporary license plate. If you have a question that this post and the resources linked in it does not address, I encourage you to find an attorney in your area to help you with your matter.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.

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