In some states, driving with your front or rear license plate light burned out can get you a traffic ticket. These tickets are often called “fix-it tickets." They can come with fines, but always include a warning to fix the issue as soon as possible. Sometimes, the fines can be hundreds of dollars or become more significant if police stop you for the same issue again.
These lights ensure your license plates are visible at night and in other low-visibility conditions. They help law enforcement identify the vehicle and ensure plate details are easily readable.
You likely notice when your car's headlights or taillights burn out, but how often do you check the lights that shine on your license plates? For most vehicles, these lights do not turn on until you start your engine and switch on your lights. This makes it hard to spot if one burns out, as you're likely already behind the wheel.
Rear and front license plate lights are part of most vehicles' lighting systems. Some car models have these lights subtly tucked away or hidden. The rear license plate light is often called a tag light.
Knowing the laws in your state can help you avoid a ticket for license plate lighting or other traffic offenses.
Vehicle Codes and State Laws
Every state has a vehicle code with rules and regulations for cars, motorcycles, semitrailers, and other motor vehicles. The rules for license plates are often found in the law sections for mechanical violations or vehicle modifications. It varies by state, but most of these codes say that license plates must:
- Be visible and clean
- Be valid for the state you live
- Not have expired tags
- Attach to the car on the front, back, or both
Nineteen states only require a rear license plate. These states leave you with only one license plate light bulb to check regularly:
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
These rules do not mention a license plate light specifically, but they point out all letters, numbers, tags, marks, and information must be clearly visible. This can include having a functioning light on the license plate. Newer car models come with this installed, so you only need to monitor and ensure it doesn't malfunction or burn out. Older cars may need to have a light added.
If police issue you a fix-it ticket for a license plate light, you need to repair or replace the light within the prescribed timeframe to avoid further penalties. It varies by area, but most jurisdictions allow 10 to 30 days to correct the problem.
Unlawful License Plates Modifications
Some motorists alter their vehicle's overall lighting system, including the license plates. Depending on the state and the specifics of the modification, changing your license plate lighting can land you a citation for an unlawful vehicle modification.
An example is installing overly bright or colored lights over your plates. If the new lighting obstructs the plate number visibility, this can violate state regulations. Most states allow white license plate lights only. Using other colors or styles, especially red lights, blue lights, or flashing lights, is unlawful.
To stay in line with the law, stick with white lights. It is also recommended to use LED bulbs, as these have the best longevity, energy efficiency, and brightness.
Vehicle Searches and Your Rights
Having a burned-out license plate light is a valid reason for police to pull you over. However, it is not a valid reason on its own for an officer to search your vehicle. If you are in this situation, the officer may ask to search your vehicle. If you say yes, they are legally allowed to search your car. If you say no, an illegal search could be challenged later in court.
The law enforcement officer needs probable cause or reasonable belief you could be committing a crime to search your vehicle without your consent. This covers traffic stops for a malfunctioning license plate light or other traffic violations.
An exception is if you're under arrest. In this case, police can search your vehicle without a warrant if the search relates to your arrest.
For example, if an officer conducts a traffic stop for a burned-out license plate light and arrests you after seeing heroin in plain view on your front seat, law enforcement is within their rights to perform a thorough search of your vehicle for other drug- or crime-related contraband.
Ticketed for a License Plate Violation? Get Legal Advice
You have rights when it comes to interactions with law enforcement. If a police officer stops you and issues a ticket for a vehicle modification or mechanical violation, you can talk to a traffic law attorney in your area.
A local attorney can review the situation from all angles and determine the best steps forward. If you decide to challenge the citation in court, having an attorney on your side may save you a fine and other penalties.
If you are facing a more serious traffic offense, like driving under the influence (DUI), reckless, driving, or leaving the scene of an accident, consider reaching out to a criminal defense attorney in your area. An experienced attorney can help you build the most effective defense for criminal court.