Reader questions the reasoning behind front license plates

Dear Street Smarts,


Q: I have asked this previously -- months ago. The answer was incomplete and the question remains. Must an automobile have a front plate? The vehicle code isn’t much help:


Display of Plates

4851.  Every license plate shall have displayed upon it the registration number assigned to the vehicle for which it is issued, together with the word “California” or the abbreviation “Cal.” and the year number for which it is issued or a suitable device issued by the department for validation purposes, which device shall contain the year number for which issued. 

This would seem to say a license plate, to be such, must have the CA and the year issued on it.  The ‘saying’ is in strong language — 'Every license plate shall.' In most cases, over the years, DMV has sent me two plates. Once I affix the 'CA' and date stickers, I have one license plate. I assume the one valid plate is put on the back of the vehicle. The un-stickered plate is not a license plate.

Auto dealers tell me they must have a front plate mounting to sell the car. Why? May I choose between front or back? 

I understand traffic cameras and the rest of common practice but fail to understand the disconnect between practice and the vehicle code. 

By the way, I have driven a car with only one license plate — I only get one — for nine years without being ‘stopped.’ So, I continue to wonder.



A: I looked up the entire section you took your blurb from. The portion of the CVC regarding license plates you question doesn’t regulate passenger vehicles; rather, it governs tractor trailer trucks, which, along with motorcycles, are issued and are required to have only one plate. By the way, you typically would see “Cal” on the plate issued to motorcycles.


Check out section 4850 regarding the issuance of plates. In part, it states that, “The department, upon registering a vehicle, shall issue to the owner two partially or fully reflectorized license plates or devices for a motor vehicle, other than a motorcycle, and one partially or fully reflectorized license plate or device for all other vehicles required to be registered under this code. The plates or devices shall identify the vehicles for which they are issued for the period of their validity.”


See also section 5200, which explains how license plates should be displayed. It reads, in part, “When two license plates are issued by the department for use upon a vehicle, they shall be attached to the vehicle for which they were issued, one in the front and the other in the rear.”


I also spoke with Mike Marando, a DMV spokesman, about your questions.


First off, passenger cars must have two license plates – one on the front and one on the back – at all times, he said.


“It’s the law,” he said.


About the one plate you said received from the DMV, Marando suggested that you check again.


“Sometimes the plates get stuck together,” he said.


 He suggested that you take the plate(s) off and try to pry them apart. If you don’t find a second plate, then go online and print out an application to get one. Log onto and click on “Commonly Used Forms.” Scroll down to “Application for Replacement Plates, Stickers, Documents.”


You can also use the DMV site to make an appointment to drop off your application for your new plate, which will match the first one. When you go to the DMV, make sure to have your driver’s license and proof of current address with you, Marando said. The plate will cost $18, he added.


Car owners who purchased vehicles that do not have holes in the front bumper to allow for license plate placement should go back to the dealer and have them drill them in, DMV officials said.


As far as the reason behind the law requiring front license plate, “It’s so law enforcement can identify vehicles,” said Marando.


Besides traffic cameras and FasTrak, front plates allow, say, a motorist who feels he or she is being followed by another vehicle to jot down the license plate number and call 911 to report it.


From the law enforcement perspective, officer Hugh Holden, spokesman for the Aptos area California Highway Patrol office said an officer could write you a fix-it ticket for your not having a license plate on the front of your vehicle.


To remedy it, you would have to mount the license plate to the front of the car before taking the vehicle and the citation to the CHP office where it would be “signed off” as corrected, Holden said.


After the CHP signs off on the ticket, you'd have to deliver it to the county clerk by mail or in person, and you may still face a fine, he said.

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3 Responses to Reader questions the reasoning behind front license plates

  1. RobtA says:

    Isn’t it the case that vehicles registered in a different state, where only one plate is required, can be driven with the one plate in California?

  2. Citizen says:

    I’ve been a scofflaw of this for some time now. I’ve run only a rear license plate on my car since I purchased it new back in 2000. I received a parking ticket (in a santa cruz public garage) for it once. Never issued a citation or otherwise pulled over for lack of the front plate.

    After paying the fix-it-ticket fine and temporarily mounting my front license plate to take care of the ticket, I removed it the next day.

    So yes, its illegal. Is it enforced? This data point says: rarely.

  3. Hi there,

    I forwarded your question to CHP Officer Hugh Holden. Here’s his response:

    “In the event that the vehicle in question is visiting California from another state, and is not here on a permanent basis, the action for the violation of not having a front license plate would likely be a warning. While in California, all vehicles (residents and visitors) are subject to the laws of the State of California. In other words, the vehicle could still potentially be stopped for the violation and status checked.”

    Hope this helps. Let me know if you have any follow-up questions.

    Take care,

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