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Why so many cars in California don't have license plates

Is it legal for cars in California to lack license plates? @Davidlaz has the answer

Dave hails from the East Coast, and there's one aspect of life in Los Angeles that puzzles him.

"I see lots of cars on L.A. streets and freeways don't have license plates," he says. "Instead they have signs like Torrance BMW or Glendale Toyota or Valley Nissan."

Under California law, he asks, "is it legal for people to drive around without plates? If so, for how many months?"

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I know exactly what you're talking about, Dave. I see cars all the time with some dealer ad where a rear license plate should go.

That's not the end of the world, of course. But if for some reason you needed to identify that vehicle -- such as to report some schmuck driver yakking away on his cellphone -- you'd be out of luck.

In many other states, the dealer is required to issue you plates when you buy a new car, or you're given a temporary plate that is displayed prominently in the rear window. Drivers typically have a month or two to get permanent plates affixed.

In California, new-car buyers are issued temporary registration that gets tucked away in a corner of the front windshield. They have 90 days to get their permanent license plates installed.

In the meantime, they're free to drive around without any means of being identified by law enforcement officials or other drivers.

It's said that Apple's Steve Jobs got away with never having license plates on his leased Mercedes by trading it in every few months.



Dec. 3, 3:12 p.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that Steve Jobs was complying with a 90-day deadline. The law at the time allowed for up to six months.


So, Dave, the answer to your question is that those plate-less cars are likely legal.

And California lawmakers should fix this.

If you have a consumer question, email me at or contact me via Twitter @Davidlaz

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