1/03/2009

License to Repeal

New Arizona License Plate LawImage by pkosednar via FlickrOn Thursday a new law took effect in Arizona that instituted up to a $200 fine for any license plate frame that covered the word "Arizona". Throughout the state drivers had to pull off their frames that showed a little of their personality including the frames that come with new cars advertising the automaker or dealership.

By Friday, Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler, said that he is crafting legislation to repeal the new state law.

"It was kind of an obscure provision that was thrown in there," Tibshraeny said, adding that he really didn't think about it until this week when the law took effect and motorists now find themselves subject to fines of up to $200.

"I think it's a silly thing," he said. "And I do think it needs to be repealed."

The law was appended to a new bill that approved new specialty plates for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the Arizona Diamondbacks and an organization that supports the families of fallen police officers.

According to The Arizona Star, the plan to repeal is likely to be vehemently opposed by Sen. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa, a former police officer and the man who snuck in the provision on the other bill.

Gray told colleagues at the time that the explosion of special license plates — like the kind the measure approved — had created a special problem for police officers.

Aside from those new plates, Arizona motorists can choose from a variety of other special plates to benefit various causes, ranging from preventing child abuse and supporting cancer research to spaying and neutering pets. And the three state universities have their own plates, too.
Gray said that when police officers are trying to figure out whether a vehicle is stolen, they shouldn't have to guess which state's records need to be checked.

However, in a chat I had recently with a former police officer from Phoenix it is likely that the real reason has little to do with auto theft and much more to do with the financial windfall for police departments and contractors under the "Photo Enforcement" laws instituted in the state. These laws allow motorists to be ticketed for violations from speeding to running a red light by using automated photo vans and cameras. The system has come under increased criticism because the main company providing the service failed to have their radar certified as required by law.

In this case, if the company that has been hired to review the photos and issue the tickets is unable to determine the actual license plate they cannot collect the fine. In fact, supposedly they have to also prove the driver is the registered owner but they rarely bother with that step, instead preferring to issue the ticket and hope the car owner will not challenge the ticket.

Tibshraeny acknowledged the variety of plates could be a problem but said penalizing motorists is not the answer.

"That's kind of the Legislature's fault for approving all these special plates," he said. Tibshraeny said that if lawmakers are concerned about law enforcement but want to keep letting groups have their own license plates "maybe they ought to just put the 'Arizona' in big fluorescent paint . . . in the middle of the plate," where it would not be hidden by a license-plate frame.

Tibshraeny said a big concern is that the new violation could lead to "pretext" stops, with officers pulling motorists over solely because the name of the state is not visible. He also suggested the offense and penalty are "a little out of whack."

He pointed out the fine is left up to individual justices of the peace, a figure the state Department of Public Safety said likely ranges from $110 to $200, a fine that can be imposed even if "Arizona" is only partially obscured.

By contrast, Tibshraeny noted, a failure to wear a seat belt carries a maximum $10 penalty. And police are legally forbidden from stopping a vehicle solely because its adult occupants are not buckled up.

Tibshraeny noted that if he is unable to force a full repeal he plans to introduce legislation to remove the fine from the violation completely, thus making it financially unfeasible to enforce.

While his bill is being crafted, Tibshraeny said he would hope the Department of Public Safety would instruct highway patrol officers not to cite motorists.

DPS spokesman Robert Bailey said his agency does not comment on legislation. But Bailey said the law is in effect "and our officers can use their own discretion on the enforcement of it."

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