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Carrot-Stick Amnesty for Cars

The law requires that all motor vehicles be registered every year. But, as even a cursory check of license plates shows, many Californians ignore the law with impunity. The Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that more than 1 million vehicles (1 in 20) are being driven with expired registrations. At an average of $70 per registration, the state is losing more than $70 million a year--a fair amount of money.

Enforcement of the registration laws is essentially left to local police departments, which say, understandably, that they have more important things to do than check license plates. The Highway Patrol cited about 400,000 unregistered vehicles last year, but the number of scofflaws is growing faster than the number of citations.

Assemblyman Gray Davis (D-Los Angeles), noting that the state’s recent tax amnesty brought in more than $140 million in unpaid taxes, thinks that it would now be a good idea to have a registration amnesty. He has introduced a bill in the Legislature (AB 2000) that would offer amnesty to registration delinquents during March, April and May of next year. They could pay what they owe without penalty.

In order for the carrot of an amnesty to work, there must be a stick at the other end. Drivers must believe that if they don’t come in voluntarily they will be caught afterward, and that the penalties will be worse then. Davis’ bill includes just such a plan. After the amnesty period, penalties and fines for expired registrations would go up sharply, and would be made mandatory. Judges would not be permitted to waive them, as they now routinely do. In addition, much of the extra money brought in would be earmarked for local communities, giving added incentive to police departments to enforce the law.

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The success of the tax amnesty demonstrates that it is an idea worth trying elsewhere, and vehicle registration is a good place to start. The majority of drivers, who do obey the law, are tired of paying for the freeloaders who thumb their noses at it.


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