City calls on online retailers to stop selling illegal license plate covers used to obscure licenses during sideshows and other crimes
SAN FRANCISCO (November 1, 2023) — City Attorney David Chiu and Police Chief Bill Scott announced today a new effort to prevent the sale of illegal license plate covers used to obscure license plate numbers and evade law enforcement. The City Attorney’s Office sent cease and desist letters to Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and Walmart to stop the sale of these products in California, where they are illegal to sell and use. San Francisco Police Officers have encountered these products on vehicles associated with sideshows, thefts, and robberies.
“The only reason someone would put a cover like this on their license plate is to get away with a crime,” said City Attorney Chiu. “These products are illegal to sell and use in California. Both the sellers and users of these illegal license plate covers need to be reminded of that. We are bringing this to the attention of these large retailers, and we are hopeful they will do the right thing and stop selling illegal license plate covers to California residents.”
“These illegal license plate covers serve no other purpose but to enable criminal activity and assist individuals in evading law enforcement,” said Chief Bill Scott. “I want to thank City Attorney Chiu for helping shut down the marketplace for these devices, which will help our officers and deter crime.”
Recently, law enforcement in San Francisco and across the country have encountered illegal license plate covers that obscure or cover a vehicle’s license plate. These covers make it difficult for law enforcement to identify vehicles and perpetrators involved in a variety of criminal activities, including sideshows, thefts, and robberies.
The covers are also used to dodge pedestrian and traffic safety measures such as automated speed and red light cameras. California recently passed Assembly Bill 645, which will allow a handful of cities, including San Francisco, to install automated speed cameras. These license plate covers could impact the effectiveness of that crucial effort to reduce speeding and protect pedestrian safety.
Illegal license plate covers come in several forms:
- Smoked, tinted, or warped covers that make it difficult to read the license plate number.
- Vinyl wrap kits that allow users to wrap their real license plates in a vinyl cover and change the license plate number displayed.
- Electronic plate covers that hide a license plate either through a mechanical drop down cover or curtain-like mechanism. A driver can initiate the cover mechanism from inside their vehicle using a remote control.
The California Vehicle Code makes it illegal to “sell a product or device that obscures, or is intended to obscure, the reading or recognition of a license plate by visual means, or by an electronic device.” Additionally, a license plate cover may not “obstruct or impair the recognition of the license plate information.” Sellers and users of these products, who are in violation of the Vehicle Code, can face fines of $250 per violation.
Illegal license plate covers are readily available for purchase from four large, mainstream online retailers—Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and Walmart. The City’s cease and desist letters call on these retailers to work with the City to address this urgent problem by stopping the sale of these illegal products to California residents. All four online marketplaces already have policies against selling goods used for illegal purposes.
Additionally, product descriptions and reviews on these websites make it clear the license plate covers are intended to obscure license plate numbers and are used for illegal purposes. For example, a user of one electronic license plate cover available on Etsy’s website boasts that it enables the driver to “be extra stealth . . . with the police,” while a reviewer on Amazon’s website notes that they have “gotten out of a lot of tickets [a]nd red light cameras.” On eBay, a product description touts how the cover “helps hide your license plate numbers” “in seconds,” while on Walmart, a product is described as “covert” to “meet your urgent needs” in “1.5 seconds.”
New York City and Amazon recently announced that these products would no longer be available to New York City residents for reasons similar to those cited in San Francisco’s letters.
The cease and desist letters can be found here: