AB 516: Changing Lives One Temp Tag at a Time

Paper placard in place of permanent plate

When California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Kevin Mullin sponsored AB 516 on July 25, 2016, it wasn’t the first time the Bay Area-based Assemblyman and Speaker Pro Tempore had brought a bill of this sort to the Capitol. A news report on San Francisco’s KTVU 2 Investigates series in 2013 prompted the Northern California lawmaker to pursue something similar in 2014. It met with opposition from car dealers and the DMV back then and got no further than supposition. But a tragedy down in the southern part of the state, as well as growing law enforcement concerns, prompted a second try on the bill. Effective January 1, 2019, California once again joins many other states in requiring all motor vehicles to display a temporary license plate instead of simply taping a Report of Sale (ROS) on the front windshield.

Once again, you may ask? Yes, way back when California also had temporary paper plates displaying the ROS number in the rear vehicle registration plate holder (that’s actually what your license plate holder is called). This was discontinued sometime in the 1970s for reasons not completely clear, although these were flimsy affairs that disintegrated after the first car washing. That may be what led to the state simply getting rid of them altogether, however, without those clear pieces of temporary identification in lieu of permanent plates, several issues have been building in the state. These ranged from cheating toll plazas, committing petty and more serious crimes, and unsolved and untraceable hit-and-run injuries and, in some cases, fatalities. Conversely, consumer groups and civil liberty advocates have raised concerns over the adverse effects such easily identifiable temporary markers on a vehicle may have on lower income drivers.

But what does AB 516 really mandate? First, let’s understand how the license plate came about.

“elle ne doit jamais être cachée.”

The days of the first license plates

Champs Élysées, Paris, France in the 1890s

In Paris, France, the Department of the Seine laid down the first law requiring the owners of these new road locomotives motoring along the Champs Élysées and elsewhere to register and affix “an identifiable tag” to their car. The automobile was brand new at this time, remember. There were no such things as driving licenses or even classes on how to operate the things. Motorists were making up their own rules and getting away with, well, pretty much anything. With no way to prove that you owned any vehicle — bicycles included, actually — anybody could just come up, jump in and drive/ride it away and you couldn’t do anything about it. Laws specifically addressing this newfangled form of transportation had yet to be created nor penalties set for breaking said rules by the devotees of the high-speed (sometimes as much as 12 miles per hour) motorcar. Unlike horses, you couldn’t really put your brand on your metal ride, although horse-drawn carriages were required to have some sort of identification on them. Why not the horseless kind? Knowing that something had to be done, the Paris Police Ordinance of 14 August 1893 came up with just the thing.

In English, the regulation reads, “Each motor vehicle shall bear on a metal plate and in legible writing the name and address of its owner, also the distinctive number used in application for authorization. This plate shall be placed at the left-hand side of the vehicle — it shall never be hidden (French: elle ne doit jamais être cachée). Plates were created by the owners themselves and consisted of their initials and some set of numbers emblazoned in porcelain glazed metal.

Within three years, Germany had joined Paris and by 1898, the Netherlands was the first country to introduce nationally registered license plates — called “driving permits”  — that were sequentially numbered starting at the number 1. This changed in 1906, but it was the first government maintained system in the world.

vintage license plate laws come to life

Alice Huyler Ramsey, the 1st woman to drive across the U.S. in 1909, with one of the first plated cars

The United States followed suit in 1901 with New York requiring all owners to have plates on their cars. At that time, these were the owner’s initials on whatever material they chose and attached at the back of the automobile. Massachusetts became the first state to issue plates for the cars of their residents in 1903, stopping the practice of owners creating their own.

And the rest, as they say, is regulated and mandated license plate history.

What is AB 516 exactly?

AB 516 amends and adds various sections to the California Vehicle Code. It starts out by reminding lawmakers of the current rules regarding vehicle registration and plate requirements in the state of California. The bill then goes on to mention a variety of changes and additions that establish a system by which dealers and the Department of Motor Vehicles can coordinate getting a temporary license plate immediately printed and adhered to the motor vehicle before it leaves the lot. AB 516 clarifies that this mandate covers all vehicles (used included) that do not have an existing permanent plate on it.

One of the bill’s most notable additions to the code is section 4456.8, which reads: “If the vehicle does not display license plates previously issued by the department, the dealer or lessor-retailer shall attach the temporary license plates issued by the reporting system.” AB 516 also makes it possible for First Line Service Providers (FLSP) to assist with this issuance of temporary license plates and keeping the dealership in compliance. (For the full text of AB 516, click here.)

pre-AB 516 dealer placard

Currently, a newly purchased vehicle leaving the lot displays the dealer info in the area where its permanent plates will be installed. AB 516 means that instead of the dealer ads you’ve become used to seeing, you will instead be faced with something akin to this temporary tag:

the precursor of AB 516

A now discontinued California temporary tag from the 1970s

The year won’t read 1971, of course, but 2019 and beyond. Although, based on the concerns raised by the lack of easily visible temporary identifiers on vehicles, a car still sporting a dealer placard from 1971 and no permanent plates isn’t necessarily out of the realm of possibility. Steve Jobs was notorious for never having a license plate on his car, for example. He would turn in his lease right before he’d have to get a plate and he just kept turning cars over, never moving from temporary to permanent. Stopping every new looking car to check whether their temporary registration is expired is, admittedly, perhaps not the best use of time for law enforcement, so those who simply have figured out a way of getting around having to get new plates can do so without incident for, yes, years.

However, there is a whole other group who use this to their advantage in less “convenience” based ways. The lack of clear identification makes it basically impossible for law enforcement to trace and track that automobile should it be involved in then leave the scene of any infraction.

And that is why AB 516 was created.

The genesis of AB 516

It was a late summer Saturday night in 2013 when Michael Bonanomi, 35, grabbed a sandwich on the notorious stretch of Ventura Boulevard known as Coldwater Curve. He sat down on the curb to eat it near one of the most dangerous bends in Los Angeles. At 11:42, Michael finished his dinner and started walking across the street. No, he wasn’t in the crosswalk and none of the witnesses — of which there are many — dispute that. They also all agree that a white Mercedes-Benz came traveling eastbound and slammed into Michael. The 35-year-old ad man and musician went flying up, landing first on and severely denting the hood of the car, smashed the windshield, then was dragged almost a full 100 yards — the length of a football field — before he finally fell off.

The white Mercedes-Benz never stopped. The white Mercedes-Benz never slowed. The white Mercedes-Benz had no license plates. The white Mercedes-Benz and its driver have never been found.

Michael died at the scene.

All witnesses could tell the police to help in identifying the car was that it had black paper plates reading “Encino” in yellow. And Michael’s death led to his family offering a $50,000 reward for information on the hit-and-run driver and a movement.

California had already recognized that it was taking a beating with toll evasion at a cost of $15-19 million a year. But Michael’s tragedy shined a light on the more devastating reasons for pushing for AB 516 and was, in many estimations, the final straw. The hit-and-runs — there were two others that same night under similar circumstances — child abduction/Amber alerts, theft, and more to the equation were becoming easier to get away with due to the lack of clear identifiers. After all, if someone commits a crime in or using a vehicle that has no plates, how can police track it down unless witnesses or automated license plate readers (ALPR) are able to see the Report of Sale (ROS) posted in the windshield?

current RS location

Reintroducing a bill that would change the fact that California was the only state not requiring these special license plates on vehicles became a priority and AB 516 was born. A petition was created on change.org with Michael Bonanomi as its face. While it garnered just 750 signatures, the concerns over the lack of recognition on vehicles were now shared by the DMV and dealers all over the state, and Governor Brown signed it into law. And upon announcing AB 516’s ratification, Kevin Mullin gave credit to the happy-go-lucky musician’s legacy.

“I’d also like to thank the family and friends of Michael Bonanomi, who was fatally injured in the 2013 hit and run accident in southern California, for bringing this issue to my attention. The car that struck and killed Michael only had paper dealer plates and to this day, the driver has not been located. While this law will not bring Michael back, in the future it will go a long way in making sure that an offending vehicle and its driver are easier to identify and bring to justice.”

What now for AB 516?

the home of AB 516 — the California capitol

As mentioned, January 1, 2019, is the date when AB 516 goes into effect. Dealers will need to ensure these sturdier, highly visible temporary license plates are on all vehicles that do not already have a permanent one. A heavy sigh of relief has gone up from all those whose concerns led to this change, but there is also a lot of worry about low-income individuals and the backlash they may incur. And it all comes down to the reason so many are happy about AB 516 — the ability for law enforcement to easily see the temporary plate on the back. Opponents’ concerns? If these are expired, what happens to the driver?

The hope with AB 516 and the continued assistance FLSPs offer dealerships is to make complying with this and all vehicle laws more seamless and efficient. Doing so is not just for their business partners, but consumers so that any lingering issues and hurdles to success will decrease, not multiply.

In preparation for the AB 516 rollout, Vitu, makers of DMVdesk, created a website that serves as a resource for dealerships to help their F&I departments and staff fully understand the requirements and implementation of this new program before that January 1, 2019 deadline hits. Visit catemptag.com to sign-up for free training seminars, read through FAQs, ask your own questions, and much more — all offered to inform and support everyone affected by this new law to help them get ahead of and feel completely prepared for the impending change. AB 516 is a new way of doing things in California, and it will be interesting to watch what it will mean in the long run for the DMV, dealers, consumers and the Golden State as a whole.

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