Driving without a license plate might sound like a no-brainer regarding what’s allowed and what’s not. But it can be more complicated than most car owners might think, especially in California, where in recent years, new laws have made important changes to license plates on cars, especially new ones right off the lot.
Can I Drive in California Without A License Plate?
It used to be common to see new cars on highways with only a piece of paper on their rear windshield, signaling the vehicle was recently bought and is still getting its plates and tags. A driver could go up to six months without having any license plates on either the back or front of their brand new car and not worry about getting a ticket or warning.
But all that changed recently, and it had to do both with Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc., and an unresolved and tragic automobile accident in 2013.
The “Steve Jobs Loophole” in California
According to multiple sources, Steve Jobs hated the way license plates looked on his new luxury cars. He didn’t want to “ruin” his new Mercedes-Benz Sl55 AMG by adding a license plate to it, so all he had to do was keep a rolling six-month lease on new SL55 AMGs, changing one after the other right before the grace period for no license plates ran out. Of course, very few car owners can afford to do this every six months, so it wasn’t a huge problem the California DMV faced, but it did call attention to the loophole’s existence in pop culture, so the media stuck his name on the loophole.
It wasn’t until a deadly accident in the state that the loophole was finally dealt with. In 2013, a man called Michael Bonanomi in Studio City was killed by a reckless driver in a hit-and-run involving a car with no license plates and only the small paper tags they temporarily stuck on the back of vehicles. No one has ever been identified as the driver because of that, so the “Steve Jobs loophole” was closed by California Assembly Bill 516, signed in 2016 by then-governor Jerry Brown.
New Law About Driving Without License Plates in California
And so the new law went into effect on January 1, 2019, effectively closing the loophole because it reduced the time a car owner is allowed to drive without license plates, from 120 days to just 90 days. New cars in California are also given temporary tags and plates right off the dealership, which resemble a license plate made out of paper. Because we don’t want paper accidentally flying around on the freeways, AB 516 only requires new vehicles to display their temporary license plate on the rear.
If, after 90 days, you still don’t have your permanent license plates (both front and back) and tags, you get a fine between $100 and $200 unless you fix the issue, and you might even avoid paying the fine. Most counties will simply ask you to mail a picture of their newly installed plates.
This often happens because it’s difficult for police and traffic officials to determine which cars are new and which aren’t. They can’t afford to check every single vehicle without a permanent license plate on them, so they have to rely a lot of times on whether or not a car looks new, which is how a lot of drivers can get away with not getting their new license plates installed for longer than 90 days.
But don’t risk it. If you don’t fix the issue, the penalties become more and more severe until you’re in danger of getting your car impounded or, worse, some days in jail if you just don’t care about putting license plates on your vehicle.