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Great plate debate lingers as Ohio says goodbye to front license plates

Stark County Sheriff George Maier said the move robs police of a crime-fighting tool long used to find stolen cars, wanted suspects and vehicles used in crimes

By Lori Steineck
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Andrew Lockner of Alliance spotted a newer model Dodge Charger across the parking lot last week at the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles office near North Canton.

The manufacturer, he pointed out, apparently left no room on the front bumper for a license plate.

That’s no problem now.

Starting Wednesday, Ohio will join neighboring states and others across the nation in doing away with requiring front license plates for most vehicles, including passenger vehicles. Rear license plates are still required.

Ohio’s two-year transportation budget approved last year and designed to address deteriorating roads and bridges included language to remove the front plate requirement.

Until now, failure to have a license plate on the front of your car amounted to a minor misdemeanor and a $100 fine.

Lockner is among the Ohioans who welcome the change. Requiring car owners to display front plates “just seems like an obnoxious reason to pull people over, like an excuse to profile,” he said, adding that he wasn’t aware drivers even needed one for the front.

Law enforcement officials, though, disagree. They have besieged legislators to reconsider.

Stark County Sheriff George Maier said his deputies will adapt, although the measure robs investigators of a valuable crime-fighting tool long used to find stolen cars, wanted suspects and vehicles used in crimes.

“From my perspective, front plates are crucial as identification tools for Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts,” he said, referring to special notifications for finding missing children and adults. “That is a crucial tool for law enforcement.”

The decision -- whether people are for or against -- affects millions of vehicles. Last year, Ohio recorded 13,285,303 license plate registrations, said Lindsey Bohrer, assistant director of communication for the Ohio Department of Public Safety. Of those, 457,402 were registered to Stark County residents.

Maier said law enforcement officers have become skilled at reading the front plate of an oncoming car.

“Of course, we have plate readers, too. But we can’t turn around and look at the plate as the car is passing us,” he said. “Following somebody, that’s easy. But if you’re watching somebody, it makes it a little more challenging. Removing the front plate reduces our ability to identify a suspect by 50%.”

Maier said vehicles are involved in 70% of crimes in the nation, from robbery, kidnapping and assault to drug smuggling.

“Part of the challenge with us is that a lot of states around us do not have front plates,” he said. “We know it’s gone. We follow the law. As a 40-year law enforcement veteran, while I get it, I understand it and I accept it, it’s just unfortunate that there’s so many things that we used it for to make our community safer.”

Lt. Leo Shirkey of the Ohio Highway Patrol’s Canton post called the front plate “a good tool for us.”

“It may hamper us some, but we’ll still be able to effectively do our job,” he said. “It’s not going to stop what we’re doing on a daily basis. We’ll just utilize additional resources to identify drivers who commit school bus violations and other crimes against the community.”

No more holes

The public seems aware of what the loss will mean for crime-fighting forces.

Brett Simons of North Canton said not having to affix a front plate is “a convenience for drivers, but not for bus drivers and police officers.”

He pointed out crime-fighting methods are stymied when cars speed around stopped school buses or officers are on the lookout for oncoming stolen cars and traffic violators.

Many car owners are happy they don’t have to drill holes into newly acquired cars. The front bumper plate also will no longer be an obstacle for newer cars with sensors.

And car enthusiasts say their vehicles are more attractive without the plate.

Steven Schondel of Massillon said he once had to drill holes into the front of his new Honda.

“You don’t have to damage your car anymore to be compliant,” he said.

Car dealers, especially those who sell higher profile cars, are pleased.

“It’s long overdue,” said Shab Tadayon, sales manager for Lexus of Akron-Canton on Interstate Parkway in Green. “These are cars beautiful and expensive.”

Having to install a license plate “ruins the look of the grill,” said Shelley Turpin, sales consultant for the dealership. “Seventy-five percent of our customers are happy that they no longer have to have a front license plate. I personally am happy about it.”