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Knox County law enforcement warns against front license plate removal in Ohio

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Front license plate

MOUNT VERNON – Beginning July 1, 2020, Ohioans will no longer need to display a front license plate.

State lawmakers agreed to remove the requirement in this year’s transportation budget, which was signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine in April. According to the Dayton Daily News, Ohio has required drivers to display a front plate since 1908, except from 1944-1946, when the state wanted to conserve steel during the war effort.

Lawmakers have debated for decades whether or not to keep the front plate requirement, the Columbus Dispatch reported. Those in the auto industry have opposed the law, arguing that front plates drive down the value of vehicles and are not compatible with evolving front-bumper technology. Those in law enforcement have supported the law, claiming that front license plates help officers solve crimes by providing a way to quickly identify suspects.

The law was removed this spring after intense negotiations between state lawmakers, who also considered the gas tax increase and numerous other items in the same bill. Next summer, Ohio will join 19 other states that do not require a front license plate, including all five of its neighbors – Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

For the first time in 73 years, Ohio drivers won’t need a front license plate. How will this change affect local law enforcement, and conversely, those in the auto industry? Richland Source reporters teamed up to find out.

Law enforcement: New law could hinder crime prevention, investigation, officer safety

Sitting in his office in April, Mount Vernon police captain Scott McKnight didn’t try to downplay the potential impact of the new license plate provision.

“Will it hinder our crime prevention, investigation, officer safety?” he asked. “Yes, it will.”

McKnight and Knox County Sheriff David Shaffer share similar concerns. Local officers and deputies use the front license plate every day to keep the community safe, they say.

When suspects are on the run, McKnight said, the public is asked to “get the plate.” Identifying a perpetrator’s license plate number will ensure a more accurate, timely and safe traffic stop. Vehicle and suspect descriptions help, McKnight said, but are typically not as accurate as a license plate number.

Once officers have a suspect’s license plate number, they will use tactical measures to track down and verify the traveling suspect. This is where the front plate proves to be crucial, McKnight said.

Officers are typically more successful identifying the front plate than the rear because it is more visible; rear plates can be hard to see because they’re moving away from an officer, and most drivers also do not keep the required distance in between vehicles. The front plate, however, can be seen easily when heading in the opposite direction.

“A lot of times I know, we would have a situation where we’d mark and say, ‘I believe I’m behind this car on Coshocton Avenue.’ And an officer says, ‘Well I’m heading eastbound and I’ll be able to verify it,’” McKnight explained. “They verify it from the front plate, and that’s when we initiate the stop.”

By verifying the front plate, officers are able to make safer and quicker stops. Officers can use the plate number to promptly obtain information about the suspect before making the stop, which is crucial to officer safety.

“A lot of times, when officers do get seriously injured it’s because they don’t have all the information before they make those stops,” McKnight explained.

Officers will now have to follow suspects closely to be able to run their plate, which could lead to safety concerns – especially if and when the stop is actually made.

Additional law enforcement concerns pertain to the use of speed-detection technology and surveillance cameras.

The Mount Vernon Police Department has four LIDAR laser guns, which officers use to detect speed and distance of traveling vehicles. Officers will typically point the laser beams at a vehicle’s metal front plate, where they are most likely to bounce off and deliver a reading.

While the department’s ability to work traffic has gone down due to the drug epidemic, McKnight said officers will still use LIDAR guns when sitting at high-traffic thoroughfares like Edgewood Road, or near school zones.

Officers may have to aim the LIDAR gun at a vehicle’s rear plate moving forward, McKnight said, which could render the technology less effective.

Front license plates also play a pivotal role in the use of security cameras. When officers are investigating burglaries or break-ins, security cameras will often pick up the suspect’s front license plate if they pulled up to the entrance of a business or home (which is typically the case, because they are seeking a quick getaway). Once officers can identify the suspect’s front plate, they can track down the vehicle and make a traffic stop.

“We can see the car, but we’ve gotta identify the plate,” McKnight said. “Then we identify the individuals just the same. But it’s a very valuable tool that’s utilized for that front plate.”

Shaffer added that school buses often have cameras that record vehicles passing illegally. Those cameras pick up the front plate as it passes the bus, Shaffer said, allowing law enforcement to identify the vehicle and track down the perpetrator.

Without front plates, these cameras will become far less effective.

While McKnight said local law enforcement will simply need to adapt to the law change next year, he did say it is “going to change the whole dynamic and the way we do business.”

And when he says business, he’s not referring to fine collection local law enforcement might incur from ticketing those currently without a front plate. Both he and Shaffer claim their patrolmen rarely stop vehicles for a missing license plate alone – and even then, typically only a warning is issued.

McKnight is more concerned with the everyday tactical operations used to track down suspects.

“It’s going to delay our reaction to a lot of things,” he said. “I know our officers don’t go out here and just stop people just because they don’t have a front plate. They’re looking for other reasons – you know, there may be a reason why they’re stopping that vehicle.”

Often times, McKnight added, delays can be dangerous. He pointed to a case that played out three days prior, involving a man who had allegedly planned to shoot his girlfriend.

Those close to the situation had told law enforcement of the man’s intentions. They informed the police he was traveling from Fredericktown to Mount Vernon, and that he was armed. They also provided his license plate number.

The Mount Vernon and Fredericktown police departments, as well as the Knox County Prosecutor’s Office, worked together to make the arrest. As the suspect crossed into Mount Vernon, MVPD officers waited for him at the city line. After confirming the license plate number, they were able to pull him over at the Shell station on North Sandusky Street – less than a mile inside city limits – to make the arrest.

“We didn’t want to bring him into the city, we knew what we were dealing with,” McKnight said. “And that [front plate] gave the officers the capability to verify that license plate and immediately make that stop.”

Because the officers didn’t have to get behind the vehicle to confirm the license plate number, the arrest was made quickly and safely.

“That’s a prime example,” McKnight said. “He had no idea.”

Automobile advocates: New law could benefit car dealers, consumers

While local law enforcement has expressed concern over the new law, the auto industry has a different perspective.

Automobile enthusiasts have been in favor of eliminating the front plate requirement for years, according to Zach Doran, president of Ohio Automobile Dealers Association. Drilling holes in the front of vehicles makes them less appealing, advocates argued, and it also drives down their value.

The OADA got involved in this year’s debate because of the commerce angle, Doran explained.

“All of our contiguous states around Ohio don’t require a front license plate. So selling new and used vehicles into Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia is a little bit more difficult when consumers that are going to go register their car there don’t need a front plate, and the car that we’re trying to sell them has two holes drilled in the front bumper,” he said.

“That becomes more challenging and oftentimes is a deal-breaker when it comes to wholesale and retail transactions.”

Doran, whose association represents approximately 800 member dealerships across the state, said vehicles are also now being made with technology in the front bumper.

“A lot of it is safety technology and convenience technology – things like crash avoidance systems, parking sensors, lane-assist sensors, adaptive cruise control, cameras that help when people are parking, those kinds of things – all of which are awesome safety features,” he said.

“And mounting a front license plate on these vehicles, for our dealers, is becoming a lot more like drilling into a computer than it is drilling into a bumper.”

Eliminating the front plate requirement will also help Ohio financially. The state will save $1.5 million per year on material costs, Doran noted, which is money it will be able to allocate elsewhere.

Joe Walsh, fixed operations director at Fredericktown Chevrolet, said his dealership supported the law change. As a dealership that advertises online and executes dealer trades across state lines, he said it will be beneficial to keep Freddy Chevy’s vehicles free of front license plate brackets.

“I think it will benefit customers,” Walsh said of the law change. “I know that certain car-buyers, if they’re looking at, for example, a Corvette or a Camaro, they do not like the idea of a front license plate bracket because of how it impacts the look of the vehicle. So I think it will certainly help with that in Ohio.

“But as far as if we’ll sell more cars or not, I have no idea what kind of impact it will have on that.”

Kerry Goetzman, part-owner of Goetzman Motorcar in Mount Vernon, was also uncertain if the law change would impact his dealership. While he said he was “definitely in favor” of getting rid of the front tag, he said the change likely won’t impact most car buyers.

“It’s really not going to make a tremendous difference, I don’t think,” Goetzman said. “It is going to make people that buy a sportier, let’s say, type of car – they’re gonna be much happier not having to put that plate on the front. Because if you notice, there’s numerous people that – and I don’t wanna just label Corvettes, but in that type of vehicle, who don’t put it on anyway. So they’ll probably be really excited about not having to do that.”

The president of Mansfield Motor Group, Dirk Schluter can see both sides of the front license plate debate.

“From a dealer’s standpoint, we could take it or leave it. We could go either way,” said Schluter, whose family has sold cars in Mansfield for more than 70 years. “From a customer standpoint, some of these higher-end luxury cars and specialty cars, people don’t like the plates on the front. From a personal standpoint, it kind of screws up the look of the car if you’ve got a nice car.”

Doran said the OADA understood law enforcement’s side of the issue, and added that the OADA relies on law enforcement to make sure millions of dollars of inventory are not stolen from its dealers’ lots. However, he added that the association was “very pleased” to see the stipulation removed from state law, after years of lobbying and support. He believes the change will have a positive impact on Ohio – not only for car dealers, but car consumers as well.

“Our consumers, the consumers that are buying vehicles at our member stores, routinely tell our dealers that they don’t want a front plate,” Doran said. “So, from a customer satisfaction standpoint, we expect that to help. We think it’s a good thing for commerce.”

What Ohio lawmakers have to say 

House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, told the Dispatch that eliminating the front license plate requirement would modernize Ohio.

“It won’t be long before there won’t be a place for a front license plate anyhow,” he said. “Then when you talk to auto manufacturers, all of the technology that they have and the smart-car technology is all in that front bumper. We’re sitting here asking a mechanic to drill a hole in there. I think it’s a move toward the future for the state of Ohio. We got out of the world of horse whips and buggies. It’s time for Ohio to step forward and modernize.”

Mark Romanchuk, a representative for the 12th district of Ohio, said he did not vote for the bill due to several problematic provisions.

“There were a lot of reasons I voted ‘no.’ There was a gas tax increase on there too," he said. "The (license plate) was one of about 100 provisions, but I voted no on the whole thing so in a way, I voted against that.”

The change is one the Ohio General Assembly has been considering for some time, according to state Sen. Larry Obhof, president of the Ohio Senate.

“This is something we’ve seen a number of times,” Obhof said. “In just about every transportation budget since I first joined the legislature in 2011, one or the other chamber has tried to include a provision like this, so it’s been a long-standing issue.”

Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof

Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof

What tipped the scales this time? Largely, Obhof said, it was a result of changes in the members of the general assembly.

An overall feeling that the budget should be passed may also have played a role, he added.

“In the grand scheme of a $9 billion transportation budget that included other issues like the gas tax, this was part of those discussions but not the most significant,” Obhof said.

Obhof emphasized the budget guaranteed significant additional funding, not only for the Ohio Department of Transportation to improve the state’s roads and bridges, but also for local governments.

Each county will receive an estimated $3,967,041 in 2020 and $4,011,374 in 2021.

Obhof also emphasized that many other states, including those bordering Ohio, do not require front license plates.

“A majority of states don’t have front license plates now, so this is really just catching up with what other states are doing,” he said.

Obhof acknowledged that historically, members of the law enforcement community have not supported the change. In response to those concerns, he noted that as a former attorney general, Governor Mike DeWine has expressed interest in looking for alternatives law enforcement officers can use in place of existing scanners that read license plates as cars drive by.

“We’re going to have a committee look at that over the next 12 months - what are our alternatives that are less costly and less obtrusive for the vehicle owner?” Obhof said.

Romanchuk said he has spoken with law enforcement about the license plate issue before.

“Law enforcement likes the front license plate,” he said. “They want to keep it. In the past it’s come up, and law enforcement is able to stop it. I understand it like this, I was talking with an Ohio State Trooper who told me it’s like seeing with one eye closed. It’s a lot harder.”

How mid-sized cities in Michigan and Pennsylvania have fared without front plates

While Ohio’s law change will take effect next July, neighboring states have had no front plate requirement for years. How has this affected the way local law enforcement does its job?

Butler County, Pennsylvania’s sheriff Michael Slupe has never been able to rely on front license plates. The Keystone state doesn’t require them and hasn’t ever to the best of Slupe’s memory.

“In PA, we’re just used to not having it,” he said. “And our scanning technology goes beyond the license plate anyways.”

He explained that license plate readers are mounted in a way that allows officers to read license plates, whether vehicles are driving towards or away from a police cruiser, and other technology allows the Butler County Sheriff’s Office to hone in on bumper stickers or other features to identify suspicious vehicles.

Still, he can relate to local law enforcement’s concerns.

“It’s almost like when Pennsylvania said, there’ll be no more registration stickers. If there was an expiration date, that gave me a reason to pull someone over, but now I’d have to run the plate before pulling someone over,” Slupe said.

The small plastic stickers for the corner of license plates were eliminated in November 2013, as a “significant cost savings for taxpayers” after a study found the stickers had “no impact on vehicle registration compliance,” according to PennDOT’s website.

Since put into effect, it’s added an extra step for officers, but they’ve adjusted, Slupe said.

“Law enforcement has dealt with it. There’s a time of adjustment, and they may not like it, but it’s law. You just adjust, that’s all,” Slupe said. “Would it be nice if the legislature listened to the police a little more? Yes, but everybody wants to save money.”

Laurence Van Alstine, deputy chief of the Adrian, Michigan Police Department, said his state got rid of its front license plate requirement in 1981 – almost a decade before he entered the police force.

Like Slupe, he said his officers are used to only having one plate at their disposal. At the same time, he understands the concerns of Ohio law enforcement.

“I suppose, in some ways, you get half as many opportunities to identify a car, because you’ve gotta see the back or you don’t get the plate,” Van Alstine said.

Not requiring a front plate has benefited the Adrian Police Department on certain occasions, however. It’s helped officers identify suspects who may be parked at motels, Van Alstine said. Those who have a warrant issued in their name will sometimes back into parking spots, so officers are less likely to see their plate. In reality, Van Alstine said, it’s a dead give-away.

“It sorts itself out in a way,” he said with a chuckle. “People back in because they don’t want you to see their plate. Well, what does that tell me? Now I really want to look at that plate. So we get out and look.”

When it comes to traffic stops, Van Alstine recognized the challenge of going from two plates to one. He said Michigan officers simply have to get behind suspects, as they’ve done for 38 years.

“It’s just not something… we don’t have the opportunity to have that. So if you’re going to ID a vehicle, you’ve just gotta get behind it,” Van Alstine said. “Or I guess you run your surveillance where it’s not moving, so that they’re coming past you, so you can see the thing as it goes by.”

In addition, Van Alstine said Adrian’s speed-detection laser guns work fine without a front plate. Officers are trained to aim for the front of the car, license plate or not, because the metal behind the plastic will allow the beam to bounce back regardless.

Speaking from 30 years of experience, Van Alstine seemed confident Ohio law enforcement will adapt to the changes. After all, the job of law enforcement is not to make the laws, he said – it’s to enforce them. Because of this, law enforcement is constantly changing.

“I’m sure that the law enforcement people in Ohio will figure it out quickly. Law enforcement’s constantly changing,” Van Alstine said. “And it’s constantly changing, not based on what we want, but what your legislature wants. You know, they’re used to getting told ‘no’ or that things are going to change. They’ll adapt. They’ll figure it out.”

Reporters Noah Jones, Tracy Geibel, Curt Conrad and Courtney McNaull contributed to this story.

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.