Just days after the mayor and NYPD announced it will no longer tolerate drivers in the city using fake or obscured license plates to avoid tolls, an incident with a van, two NYPD officers and a state trooper demonstrates why eradicating the problem may be challenging for New York City.
Since May, law enforcement agencies in the state have been teaming up to crack down on the license plate issue, which the MTA claims costs it $50 million a year in lost toll revenue. The NYPD, New York State Police, police from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and New York City Sheriff’s Office agreed they’d be more aggressive in pulling over drivers who cover their plates, issue tickets and, in some cases, arrest repeat offenders.
On Tuesday, Mayor Eric Adams announced a renewed push to end the practice, saying past efforts had fallen short.
“The sole thing that’s different from those who were talking about it before and those who are talking about it now is, Eric Adams is the mayor now," he said.
But on Wednesday, Gothamist witnessed officers with the NYPD engaging in the practice.
Just before 11 a.m., at the entrance to the FDR Drive at the bottom tip of Manhattan, a reporter witnessed a white Chevy van with a blue surgical mask covering its rear plates about to get on the highway, when it passed a New York State trooper. The trooper immediately put on the lights, and pulled the van over. He got out of his car and approached the driver of the van. The two spoke briefly and the trooper returned to his car.
On the dashboard of the van was an NYPD placard that expired on May 1, 2020. As well as a vehicle registration sticker that expired in September, 2021. The New York State safety and emission sticker was the only thing that was up to date.
When questioned by Gothamist, the trooper said the driver told him he was an NYPD officer who was “undercover” so the he didn’t issue a ticket.
One of the allegedly undercover officers hopped out of the van. He wore a heavy vest with the words “POLICE” written in bold white letters. He ripped the mask off the license plate, got in his van, waved to a reporter and drove away.
The day before, Adams stood with Kim Royster, the NYPD’s Chief of Transportation, and Police Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell to announce this type of conduct will not be tolerated.
“We will defeat this public-safety threat. We will eradicate fake and obscured license plates that create what are essentially a class of untraceable, ghost-cars moving among us,” Sewell said. “And we need all our law enforcement and government partners pulling with us in this same direction.”
Adams noted that drivers who obscure or use fake plates are often involved in other types of illegal crimes and reckless driving.
“This is connected to our crime problem. This is connected to our vision zero problem. This is connected to the disorderly of our city,” Adams said.
Wednesday's incident indicates not all law enforcement is fully on board.
The van that was pulled over with a surgical mask over the plates had been caught speeding in a school zone 53 times so far this year alone, and failed to stop at a red light five times. The vehicle has a total of 163 speeding, red light and parking violations going back to 2019. But the vehicle registration includes the letters OMS, which indicates it’s a rental, so multiple drivers could be responsible for the collection of violations.
The NYPD is not required to pay tolls on work vehicles, so it’s still unclear why officers on duty would cover their plates or why they were using a rental.
Gothamist asked the NYPD why an officer would cover the plates of their vehicle and whether it was acceptable for a vehicle driven by the NYPD to have so many speeding and red lights tickets. A spokesperson said the incident was under "internal review.”
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office declined to comment, referring Gothamist to the NYPD’s statement.
Beau Duffy a spokesperson for the New York State Police and wrote in an email that the trooper that pulled over the van, “confirmed the driver and passengers were NYPD members who were conducting a law enforcement operation.”
He added that, “Troopers can use discretion with vehicle and traffic violations depending on the circumstances. In this case, the Trooper chose not to issue a violation once the issue with the license plate was rectified.”
That’s not good enough for Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams, who's had some issues with driving-related violations himself.
Illegal activity ... doesn’t become legal when law enforcement engages in it
“This enforcement can only be effective if it’s applied equally to New Yorkers. Illegal activity like obstructing or damaging license plates — or driving with an expired registration — doesn’t become legal when law enforcement engages in it, as it appears was the case in this situation,” he wrote in an email.
Rather than relying solely on the police, a Brooklyn state senator wants to deputize the the public in the fight and offer an added incentive to snitch on vehicles with faulty plates: Straight cash.
Sen. Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat, introduced a bill Tuesday that would require municipalities across the state to create a bounty program for reporting ghost cars. If signed into law, the measure would ensure 25% of any fine paid by the owner of the vehicle would go to the citizen who reported it.
The maximum fine for a first offense is $300, meaning the bystander who reports it would get up to $75.
Gounardes said the inspiration for the bill came from the state Legislature’s recent decision to extend the city’s speed camera program in school zones. One way vehicle owners have tried to avoid automatic speeding tickets is by altering or obscuring their license plates, he said.
“We’re here to crack down on that and to stop that from happening,” he said. “And I think this is just a creative tool in a toolkit we could be using to help improve street safety.”
The idea for the bill is based on a similar, existing system for idling vehicles.
In 2019, the city started offering a 25% reward to people who document idling trucks, vans and buses. The result was a steady spike in citizen reports of illegal idling, which jumped from about 9,000 in that year to more than 12,000 last year, according to the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.
So far, the city has paid out more than $700,000 to citizens who reported and documented idling, often with simple videos on their cell phone.
A first-time idling offense carries a $350 fine, meaning the citizen reporter’s cut would be $87.50. That money can add up: In March, CNBC profiled some “clean-air vigilantes” who filed thousands of complaints and said they have pocketed tens of thousands of dollars.
“We have a proven model as to how this can work,” Gounardes said. “We've seen it work with idling. Let's do the same thing.”