NYC license plate cheats skirted $108M in speed camera tickets last year, audit finds

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By Dan Sears

New York City lost an estimated $108 million last year from drivers who used fake or obscured license plates to evade speed cameras, according to an audit published Monday by city Comptroller Brad Lander.

Lander said the problem has proven to not only undermine the city’s speed and red light camera program, but also the technology used for toll collection by the MTA, Port Authority and state Thruway Authority. The report comes as the MTA prepares to launch its congestion pricing program, which will use license plate cameras to toll cars that do not have E-ZPass readers.

“This is a problem that is growing rampantly because there’s no enforcement,” Lander said in an interview. “We can get control on it if there is some enforcement. If when you drive through the Battery Tunnel or another location once a week, once every other week and there is going to be an officer there that might catch you.”

According to Lander’s report, 22% of cars caught speeding by the city’s automated cameras were rejected as unbillable in the first half of 2023 because their plates were unreadable. The majority of those had so-called ghost plates, or temporary license plates printed off the internet. The next most common reason speeding cars were deemed unbillable was because their license plates were defaced or covered up, the audit found.

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In data first reported by Newsday, plate cheaters cost the MTA $46 million and the Port Authority $40 million in 2022.

Port Authority officials said the problem began during the pandemic when it spread through word of mouth that fake plates could be printed off the internet.

“For toll authorities and for local law enforcement it really is a game of trying to catch up and to get people back to thinking about the fact that every vehicle needs to be properly plated and registered while it’s on the road,” Robin Stewart-Bramwell, deputy director of tunnels at the Port Authority, said in an interview.

Stewart-Bramwell said the agency collected $25 million in 2023 from toll evaders, more than half of what was lost in 2022 in toll evasion. It has also begun arresting toll evaders.

On Friday, the agency arrested Lequincy Anderson, a BMW driver who allegedly had a mechanical cover that he could lower while passing beneath toll gantries. He was charged with theft, tampering with a government document and possession of burglar’s tools for evading 292 tolls amounting to nearly $20,000.

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“What we’re doing is really stepping up enforcement as a way to catch violators in the act, as well as using the tools that we do have, whether that’s through registration suspension or through civil judgements,” Stewart-Bramwell said.

Mayor Eric Adams in 2022 vowed to crack down on plate cheaters, and ticketing against violators has since increased.

The city transportation department said the comptroller’s audit focused on tickets issued mainly by older cameras, and that the issue would be resolved as newer technology is rolled out.

Gov. Kathy Hocul also included efforts to crack down on bad license plates in her proposed budget last week. She pitched a new state law that would allow the DMV to increase fines and even deny car registration from drivers with illegal or obscured plates.

“Not that long ago, no one would have thought it’s okay to drive around with a phony license plate,” Lander said. “We just got to get back to that. If you’re going to drive a vehicle in New York City, you got to have your legal license plate on it.”

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