Press "Enter" to skip to content

How troopers see your tags

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

License Plates – March 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

One reason for the new license plates is to make life easier for law-enforcement; peace officers say that faded old plates are hard to read, as are the recent 3-letter 4-numeral plates that crowd the symbols together.

Aside from the obvious things, like speeding or running a stop sign, what inspires a cop to take a hard look at your license plate?

Steve Pearson of Salida now works at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility, but he was a state trooper in the Chaffee County area from 1973 to 1985.

“The main thing we looked for, when a car went by, was whether the little tabs were current,” he said. “If they were expired, then you’d get my attention real fast.”

But other things about license plates attracted his notice, too.

“I always looked for plates that looked out of place, like old plates on a new vehicle. Often that’s perfectly legal — the owner just transferred the plates from old car to new when he licensed the car. But it would catch my eye, and it was a reason to pull somebody over.”

The converse was also true, new plates on an old car. “Same thing — it could be legal, and it almost always was. But it could also mean the plates were stolen, and I’d pull the driver over and make sure the registration matched the plates.”

Plates that are faded and hard to read? “If everything else is in order, that usually wouldn’t get you a ticket, but it could mean spending a lot of time pulled over beside the road when you’d rather be getting to where you’re going. Another thing that got my attention was a plate that wasn’t properly attached — just hanging there lopsided with a piece of baling wire, something like that. That’s a reason to suspect the plate was stuck on in a hurry, maybe because it’s stolen.”

Pearson also watched for what he calls “farmer plates.” Those aren’t necessarily the “FARM” license plates, “but ones like on the backs of pickups or trailers that can get beat up a lot and become hard to read. If you see one on the back of a beat-up pickup, you can figure it belongs there, but if it’s on the back of a new rig, it’s time to flash the lights.”

What’s the best way to keep from attracting police attention with your license plates?

“Make sure they’re current. Hang the plates properly, and keep them clean and easy to read. Don’t forget that the back one has to be lit at night. If you do all that, and you’re driving sensibly, that really cuts the odds that you’ll be pulled over.”

Does it matter what county issued the plates? Do locals get a break, or anything like that?

“Not really,” Pearson said. “The main thing I worried about was matching the plate numbers to the registration, not where the car was registered.”