Vehicle Code § 5201 CVC is one of California’s statutes on license plates and the display of plates. People commit an offense under this law if they either fail to securely fasten their license plates to their motor vehicles, or fail to keep their plates clearly visible and legible. A violation of this code section is an infraction punishable by a fine of $196.
In this article, we will quote the full language of the statute. Afterward, we will provide legal analysis and explanation
The language of the code section reads as follows:
5201. (a) License plates, including temporary license plates, shall at all times be securely fastened to the vehicle for which they are issued so as to prevent the plates from swinging, shall be mounted in a position so as to be clearly visible, and so that the characters are upright and display from left to right, and shall be maintained in a condition so as to be clearly legible. The rear license plate shall be mounted not less than 12 inches nor more than 60 inches from the ground, and the front license plate shall be mounted not more than 60 inches from the ground, except as follows:
- The rear license plate on a tow truck or repossessor’s tow vehicle may be mounted on the left-hand side of the mast assembly at the rear of the cab of the vehicle, not less than 12 inches nor more than 90 inches from the ground.
- The rear license plate on a tank vehicle hauling hazardous waste, as defined in Section 25117 of the Health and Safety Code, or asphalt material may be mounted not less than 12 inches nor more than 90 inches from the ground.
- The rear license plate on a truck tractor may be mounted at the rear of the cab of the vehicle, but not less than 12 inches nor more than 90 inches from the ground.
- The rear license plate of a vehicle designed by the manufacturer for the collection and transportation of garbage, rubbish, or refuse that is used regularly for the collection and transportation of that material by a person or governmental entity employed to collect, transport, and dispose of garbage, rubbish, or refuse may be mounted not less than 12 inches nor more than 90 inches from the ground.
- The rear license plate on a two-axle livestock trailer may be mounted 12 inches or more, but not more than 90 inches, from the ground.
- (A) The rear license plate on a dump bed motortruck equipped with a trailing, load bearing swing axle shall be mounted more than 12 inches, but not more than 107 inches, from the ground.
- (B) As used in this section, a trailing, load bearing swing axle is an axle which can be moved from a raised position to a position behind the vehicle that allows for the transfer of a portion of the weight of the vehicle and load to the trailing axle.
(b) Temporary license plates shall be replaced with permanent license plates upon receipt of the permanent license plates, and the temporary license plates shall be destroyed at that time.
(c) A covering shall not be used on license plates except as follows:
- The installation of a cover over a lawfully parked vehicle to protect it from the weather and the elements does not constitute a violation of this subdivision. A peace officer or other regularly salaried employee of a public agency designated to enforce laws, including local ordinances, relating to the parking of vehicles may temporarily remove so much of the cover as is necessary to inspect any license plate, tab, or indicia of registration on a vehicle.
- The installation of a license plate security cover is not a violation of this subdivision if the device does not obstruct or impair the recognition of the license plate information, including, but not limited to, the issuing state, license plate number, and registration tabs, and the cover is limited to the area directly over the top of the registration tabs. No portion of a license plate security cover shall rest over the license plate number.
(d) A casing, shield, frame, border, product, or other device that obstructs or impairs the reading or recognition of a license plate by an electronic device operated by state or local law enforcement, an electronic device operated in connection with a toll road, high-occupancy toll lane, toll bridge, or other toll facility, or a remote emission sensing device, as specified in Sections 44081 and 44081.6 of the Health and Safety Code, shall not be installed on, or affixed to, a vehicle.
(e) (1) It is the intent of the Legislature that an accommodation be made to persons with disabilities and to those persons who regularly transport persons with disabilities, to allow the removal and relocation of wheelchair lifts and wheelchair carriers without the necessity of removing and reattaching the vehicle’s rear license plate. Therefore, it is not a violation of this section if the reading or recognition of a rear license plate is obstructed or impaired by a wheelchair lift or wheelchair carrier and all of the following requirements are met:
- (A) The owner of the vehicle has been issued a special identification license plate pursuant to Section 5007, or the person using the wheelchair that is carried on the vehicle has been issued a distinguishing placard under Section 22511.55.
- (B) (i) The operator of the vehicle displays a decal, designed and issued by the department, that contains the license plate number assigned to the vehicle transporting the wheelchair.
- (ii) The decal is displayed on the rear window of the vehicle, in a location determined by the department, in consultation with the Department of the California Highway Patrol, so as to be clearly visible to law enforcement.
(2) Notwithstanding any other law, if a decal is displayed pursuant to this subdivision, the requirements of this code that require the illumination of the license plate and the license plate number do not apply.
(3) The department shall adopt regulations governing the procedures for accepting and approving applications for decals, and issuing decals, authorized by this subdivision.
(4) This subdivision does not apply to a front license plate.
(f) This section shall become operative January 1, 2019.
- driving a car with a dangling front license plate.
- operating a vehicle while knowing that both the front and rear license plates are covered by mud.
- putting a temporary license plate on top of a car’s dashboard and not fastening it to the vehicle.
A person can contest a charge under this statute with a legal defense. A few common defenses include people showing that:
- law enforcement made a mistake,
- an exception under the law applies, and/or
- a peace officer did not have probable cause to stop the driver.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. What does California law say about fastening a license plate?
- 2. Can an accused raise a legal defense?
- 3. What are the penalties for violating VC 5201?
- 4. Are there similar offenses?
1. What does California law say about fastening a license plate?
Vehicle Code 5201 sets forth the following requirements that vehicle owners must follow regarding their cars’ license plates:
- owners must securely fasten their plates, including front license plates and rear plates, to their vehicles, and
- drivers must keep their license plates, and license plate numbers, visible and legible at all times.1
As to the mounting of plates, the statute reads that the rear license plate shall be mounted not less than 12 inches nor more than 60 inches from the ground. For front plates, they shall be mounted not more than 60 inches from the ground.2
Several exceptions to this last rule do apply. The exceptions apply to certain vehicles, like:
- tow trucks,
- tank vehicles, and
- garbage trucks.
VC 5201(b) also prohibits an owner of the vehicle to place a covering over a license plate.3 Again, some exceptions apply. For instance, the installation of a license plate security cover is not a violation of this law if the device does not obstruct or impair the recognition of license plate information.4
However, a casing, placard, or covering cannot be used if it impairs or obstructs the recognition of a license plate by an:
- electronic device operated by law enforcement, or
- electronic device operated in connection with a toll road, toll bridge, or a remote emission sensing device.5
2. Can an accused raise a legal defense?
Lawyers that help clients contest traffic tickets draw upon certain legal strategies to challenge these sorts of charges. Three common ones include attorneys showing that:
- the police made a mistake.
- an exception applies.
- the police did not have probable cause to stop a driver.
2.1 Mistake by Police
Sometimes a police officer or a member of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) may mistakenly charge a person with a violation of this section. There are times when it is difficult to determine if a license plate is mounted properly or securely fastened. Therefore, people can always challenge a ticket by showing that the police made a mistake.
There are several exceptions that apply under this law. For example, there are exceptions to the proper mounting of license plates and exceptions to plate coverings. This means people can always try to assert that the law does not apply to them because they fall under one of these exceptions.
2.3 No probable cause
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that police must have probable cause before they can detain or arrest a suspect of a crime.
If a person was stopped or arrested for violating CVC 5201, and there was no probable cause, then any evidence obtained following the improper stop/arrest could get excluded from the case. The result is that a judge could dismiss a case or reduce a person’s charges.
3. What are the penalties for violating CVC 5201?
Traffic violations under this law are treated as infractions. Violations result in a person receiving a traffic ticket and a fine of $196.
Note that a violation does not result in any points being assessed against a person’s driver’s license or the driver’s DMV record.
4. Are there similar laws?
There are three laws similar to CVC 5201 These are:
- display of license plates – VC 5200,
- attaching registration tabs – VC 5204, and/or
- misuse of vehicle registration – VC 4462.5.
4.1 Display of license plates – VC 5200
Per VC 5200, display of license plates refers to the law that states:
- if the DMV issues a driver two license plates, he must put one on the front of the vehicle and one on the rear, and
- if the DMV issues a motorist just one plate, he must put it on the rear of the car.
Note that “rear of the car” does not mean a driver can display a plate within a vehicle’s rear window. The plate has to be attached to the car in accordance with VC 5201a.
4.2 Attaching registration tabs – CVC 5204
Per CVC 5204, attaching registration tabs refers to the law that requires drivers to properly affix tabs to their rear license plate. These stickers or decals indicate the current month and year that a person’s vehicle registration expires.
As with a violation of VC 5201, a violation of this law is an infraction that is punishable by a traffic ticket and a fine.
4.3 Misuse of Vehicle registration – VC 4462.5
Under VC 4462.5, misuse of vehicle registration refers to the law that makes it a crime for people to present police with a registration card that was not issued for the vehicle that the motorist was driving.
California law treats a violation of this offense as more serious than a violation involving license plates. The misuse of vehicle registration is a misdemeanor crime punishable by:
- custody in county jail for up to six months, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.
- California Vehicle Code 5201a CVC.
- See same.
- California Vehicle Code 5201c VC.
- California Vehicle Code 5201c2 VC.
- California Vehicle Code 5201c3 VC.