A growing number of New York City motorists have started covering their license plates — or driving without them altogether.
The trend comes as city and state agencies increasingly rely on automated cameras that photograph license plates to collect tolls or issue tickets to reckless drivers. According to data from the city’s Department of Transportation, the agency’s cameras were unable to ticket more than 4% of cars caught speeding or running through red lights last fall, up from roughly 1% in 2019, when state legislation allowed the city to expand its camera enforcement program.
Cars with obstructed, phony or missing license plates caught the attention of Mayor Eric Adams last spring, when he pledged to crack down on the so-called “ghost cars.” But street safety advocates said the scofflaws continue to plague city streets — and have responded with a new form of guerilla activism.
A leader of that effort is Gersh Kuntzman, editor of the advocacy news website Streetsblog, who’s spent nearly all of his mornings in recent weeks cycling around the city identifying cars with problematic license plates.
Armed with blue and black paint pens that he uses to fill in plates with scratched off letters and numbers, a screwdriver to fix bent plates and his cellphone, Kuntzman regularly spots obvious signs of illegal activity.
“I’ve seen all manner of stuff,” he told Gothamist on a recent morning as he hunted for cars with illegal plates.
It didn’t take long for Kuntzman to find a battered gray Toyota Corolla with its front and rear license plates bent, so the last digit of the plate would be unreadable to a red light, speed or toll camera. Kuntzman checked the website How’s My Driving NY to see how many violations the vehicle has received.
It had only a handful of parking tickets.
Still, Kuntzman recorded himself pointing out the illegally bent plates, and then straightening them out. The videos are “Borat” style gonzo journalism, where the unwitting suspect is a vehicle caught red-handed.
“This guy isn’t public enemy No. 1, but now at least, if he does speed, he’ll get the ticket he deserves,” Kuntzman said before cycling off to find the next one.
Despite Kuntzman’s seemingly effortless ability to find ghost cars, the NYPD insisted it has stepped up enforcement this year.
In July, the NYPD reported officers had issued 16,448 tickets to drivers for illegal or obstructed license plates, had towed 1,700 vehicles, and seized 2,478 vehicles in 2022. As of this month, the numbers are up to 42,629 summonses written this year, 3,602 vehicles towed and 5,635 vehicles seized.
Police were unable to provide data for 2021 for comparison.
Street safety advocates complained that police aren’t taking the issue seriously — and also accused cops of being scofflaws themselves. Plate-watchers regularly identify cars with obstructed plates parked outside police precincts across the five boroughs, they said.
Kuntzman’s campaign was inspired in part by Brooklyn lawyer Adam White, who came across a black Chevrolet Suburban with a piece of plastic covering part of its license plate last month. He removed it, but the driver caught him and called the police. When officers arrived, they let the driver go – and arrested White. He was put in handcuffs, charged with criminal mischief and held in a cell for five hours.
On the day of White’s arraignment, the Brooklyn district attorney dropped the charges.
White is preparing his own lawsuit against the NYPD for false arrest and civil rights violations, as well as a lawsuit against the driver. Unlike Kuntzman, White said he won’t tamper with a license plate again.
The captain of the NYPD’s 78th Precinct, where White was arrested, said concerned citizens should call 311. But at a community meeting, Captain Frantz Souffrant admitted officers always respond to 911 calls before checking out a complaint from 311.
“People get upset about that, you know, like why is there no action being taken, but you know at that moment in time, we’re just not able to,” he said.
White told Gothamist he recently complained to 311 about a Hummer with a police department parking placard on the dashboard and covered plates. He said the case was closed with no action taken.
But activists said they don’t just face legal risks when they confront drivers breaking the law.
Earlier this year, Park Slope resident Tony Melone, 46, complained to a driver parked in a protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. Melone said he touched the side mirror as he tried to pass the vehicle, and the driver chased Melone for four blocks before catching him and beating him unconscious.
Melone said the police checked camera footage, but the license plate was covered and the investigation hit a dead end. Melone couldn’t walk for three months.
The driver hasn’t been caught.
“I’m not going to be confronting drivers anymore, I’ve learned my lesson in that regard,” Melone said recently.
The mayor’s office didn’t immediately respond to email for comment about the crackdown and whether it believes it’s making an impact. But a month before Adams announced the surge in enforcement, the MTA said it would be working with the state to address illegal plates at its facilities. The agency reports unreadable plates have gone from 1.1% of total vehicles that used an MTA bridge or tunnel last year, to .09% this year.
The agency estimated that out of the $2.1 billion it collects every year, toll evasion accounts for about $50 million. That number could shoot up in 2024, when the MTA plans to launch congestion pricing tolls in Manhattan and use automated camera readers to toll motorists who don’t use E-ZPass.
MTA Bridges and Tunnels President Daniel DeCrescenzo said he believes the number of toll evaders is so low, in part, because the cameras used by the MTA are “a little more advanced” than the city’s red light and speeding cameras. The MTA’s cameras take color photos and use a flash.
“If we can keep the needle where it is or move the needle in the right direction for us, that’s a win,” DeCrescenzo told Gothamist.
But, he said the agency has been dealing with this problem since toll booths started being replaced by automated gantries in 2016. The Port Authority’s bridges and tunnels could face a similar issue, with the last of the agency’s toll booths being phased out this month.
“Because we’ve been doing it for so long, hopefully there’s a lot of tools we can bring to that,” DeCrescenzo said.
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes introduced a bill this year that would reward citizens who report illegal plates. They’d get 25% of the ticket, and with some going for as much as $300, it might result in a $75 payout.
But his bill is still in committee, and it is not clear if it will come up for a vote next year.