Rampant phony license plates used to get away with crimes in Philadelphia
Philadelphia police officials acknowledge the department lacks automated plate readers and other technology to trace cars with faked tags
By Ryan W. Briggs and Dylan Purcell
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — After five gunmen killed Nicolas Elizalde, 14, in a hail of bullets outside a Roxborough High School football scrimmage in late September, they clambered back into a gray Ford Explorer and sped away.
It took investigators about a day to trace the suspects' path, piecing together sporadic video clips of the car from surveillance footage as it journeyed from Northwest Philadelphia to a strip club parking lot in Southwest Philadelphia. There, police found an expired temporary Delaware license plate taped to the rear of the car.
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Like a string of getaway vehicles recently used in Philadelphia shootings, the Explorer had been stolen. As for the paper license plate, Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles officials said it was a fake.
The recovered SUV contained other evidence left by the suspected shooters, including a receipt from a gun store where one accused triggerman had bought ammo despite being a felon — and yet another temporary paper tag. Police have since linked some of the suspects to another slaying the day before, which featured a different getaway car captured on video with another temporary license plate.
While fake license plates are an old tool of criminal trades, what's new is the flood of fraudulent temporary tags into Philadelphia from states with looser issuance rules — like Texas and Delaware. These phony plates have shown up increasingly in police investigations into shootings, carjackings, hit and runs, and car thefts. (In addition to counterfeit plates, thefts of auto tags this year to date were 2,378, a more than 60% increase over the same period in 2018.)
Cpl. Jasmine Reilly, a Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson, said fraudulent plates impeded police investigations.
"Unfortunately, individuals use paper tags as an additional layer to avoid identification during criminal activity," Reilly said. "Criminals are aware of the limited information attached to the use of paper tags ... and will use that to their advantage to avoid detection or apprehension."
Philadelphia police officials acknowledge the department lacks automated plate readers and other technology to trace cars with faked tags. Nor does it log incidents of forged plates, or track those used in multiple crimes.
Law enforcement agencies elsewhere are battling the surge of phony plates. Texas recently overhauled its car tag regulations and penalties following reports of a "tagdemic" that may have put 1.2 million fraudulent plates into circulation. Some have since appeared in far-away murders and human trafficking cases. New York City began sweeping neighborhoods for fake out-of-state tags earlier this year, and last month police in Yonkers pulled 42 "ghost cars" off the streets.
Capt. Shawn Trush with Philadelphia police's major crimes unit acknowledged the local trend, but said the vast majority of people with fraudulent plates used them to save money on title transfers or to dodge tolls.
"This may be more about avoiding taxes and insurance costs than for violent criminal activity," he said.
But ties to violent crime aren't hard to find.
A few days after the Roxborough shooting, five schools were placed in lockdown after someone in a black Kia Optima bearing a temporary tag fired 30 shots at a 21-year-old man on East Wishart Street, in Kensington, killing him and wounding another man.
That same day, four men jumped out of a white GMC and shot a 51-year-old man in the head, fatally, near 19th and Mifflin Streets, in South Philadelphia. The car bore a fake temporary tag, this time from New Jersey.
On Nov. 6, three men emerged from a black sedan near Kensington and Allegheny Avenues and fired 40 rounds into a crowd, striking nine men and women. The next day, police stopped a car driven by a man they believe to be a suspect in that shooting — it was yet another car with yet another temporary Delaware license plate.
Out-of-state plates fueling surge
Why the popularity of phony First State plates?
Pennsylvania only issues temporary plates for out-of-state car purchases, which are relatively few, according to the state Department of Transportation. But its tiny neighbor to the south began allowing car dealers to print temporary registration plates in 2012, intending to close car sales more quickly while electronically forwarding new owner information to law enforcement.
Then the pandemic slowed how quickly the department could process requests for permanent license plates. Those delays led to the department sending some people 60-day temporary tags three times in a row, Kathryn Beasley, of the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles, said. Licensed Delaware dealers issued 152,170 temporary tags last year using the "print on demand" system, a pace that has surged this year — with 97,329 as of May, she said.
Many fraudulent tags are complete fabrications. On Facebook Marketplace, as of mid-October, one seller in Philadelphia was peddling a blank Delaware tag and registration card, complete with a convincing holographic strip attesting to its apparent authenticity.
It was a convincing forgery, according to Beasley. The going rate: $80.
Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York Police Department detective and adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said fraudsters tend to prefer fakes from adjacent states because they are commonplace enough not to catch a local cop's eye, but not so familiar that police might notice flaws in plate templates or security features.
Delaware printing hundreds of thousands of temporary plates into circulation made fakes even harder to spot and legitimate tags easier to steal — but it is hardly the only state with a fraud problem.
An NBC News investigation in Washington, D.C., disclosed a surge of bogus Maryland, New Jersey and Texas tags. The Lone Star State also deployed a print-on-demand system, but one so easy to manipulate that out-of-state residents were able to register fake car dealerships and issue more than half a million fake tags.
The volume was so great that some phony plates made their way into the Philadelphia region, prompting warnings from local law enforcement.
"There's a major problem with the state of Texas," said Thrush, the Philadelphia police captain. "You didn't even have to be a resident of Texas [to issue a plate]."
Giacalone believes expanded use of red-light cameras and toll-by-plate system helped drive a market for phony tags and other evasive products, like tinted plate covers, as people sought to beat automated red light tickets and fines.
"We have traffic cameras everywhere now," he said. "That's one of the biggest reasons, I believe, we're seeing an increase in fake plates."
All those fakes are costing governments money. The Philadelphia Parking Authority, which operates 146 red light cameras across the city, said that between August 2020 and June 2022, the devices logged some 60,000 fraudulent, missing or otherwise unreadable plates. That amounts to $6 million in uncollected fines.
So far, there does not appear to be efforts to crack down on the issue locally.
"We are not aware of any task forces or studies on this topic, which is not to say that we would not be willing to participate if asked," said Jane Roh, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
The state Attorney General's Office and federal U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia declined to comment on the issue.
"They don't want to talk about it because it's embarrassing," Giacalone said.
Some police officers blamed relatively light penalties for emboldening the sale and use of bogus tags. Possession of a fraudulent license plate in Pennsylvania is a summary offense — essentially a fine — while making, selling or knowingly possessing forged plates is a misdemeanor.
Other officers said the Driving Equality law, passed by Philadelphia City Council in late 2021 to curb police car stops over eight minor issues, like a single missing brake light or an expired inspection sticker, has made it easier for drivers to get away with possessing phony license plates. The law took effect in March 2022.
Officially, the Police Department said it had "no way to determine" if the rise in fraudulent plates is linked to the law, which does not restrict police from stopping a driver for illegal plates.
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Giacalone said some cops would still interpret it as a signal to back off all traffic stops.
"They're just going to throw their hands up and say 'I'm not going to bother. I'm not going to be the test case,'" he said.
Even before the new law, arrests over these offenses were rare.
From 2017 to 2022 to date, only 57 cases involving the illegal use, trade or manufacture of phony tags have resulted in arrests, according to data from the District Attorney's Office. That's fewer than 10 a year on average, and only two so far this year.
Many of those 57 cases stemmed from arrests made by state troopers or suburban police — not city cops — that were referred to Philadelphia courts.
Max Weisman, a spokesperson for Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who authored the Driving Equality bill, said it was crafted in response to police disproportionately pulling over Black drivers, while recovering contraband less than 1% of the time.
"If fake, this is still a motor vehicle code violation and can be enforced through a traffic stop," he said, adding that Philadelphia police were trained on the new rules. "Officers not conducting traffic stops is a decision made by the department and has nothing to do with Driving Equality."
The Camden way
Philadelphia does not have the technology in place to automatically read or track fraudulent license plates, but Camden County police do.
There, a network of plate readers mounted on squad cars or street poles automatically scan for numbers that have been entered into a "BOLO" list — meaning "be on the lookout" — and can automatically track the path of vehicles that match.
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These systems have generated privacy concerns, principally over law enforcement storing innocent drivers' plate information or whereabouts. But proponents say it's less invasive than physical car stops. Officials in New Jersey recently announced a $10 million grant this year to expand Camden-like systems statewide.
Philadelphia police do have a modest automated-plate reader system — 25 squad car-mounted devices. But just two are still functional, according to Reilly, the spokesperson. The department is trying to repair them as well as exploring "several funding initiatives" to buy more.
The department also draws on video data from its 24-hour Real Time Crime Center, set up in 2012, which accesses feeds from thousands of public video surveillance cameras operated by the city, SEPTA and other agencies.
These cameras have plate-reader ability, but Reilly said that has not been set up. "[It] would be a relatively easy technical lift to enable," Reilly said.
Giacolone said cracking down on crime enabled by fake plates will take more than flipping on a switch.
"You have to be training all your officers," he said. "And you have to make penalties stiffer if you want to put a dent in this."
This story was updated to clarify when the city's Driving Equality law was passed and when it took effect.
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