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In the U.S. some states do not require cars to display license plates on the front of a vehicle, but a majority require plates on both the front and rear, as shown in the map below.

License Plate requirements by state

My car is registered in Pennsylvania, so I only have a plate on the rear. AFAIK, I can drive it into any state that requires front plates without violating a law, because I comply with the registration state's law.

But what if my car is registered in a state that requires a front plate (e.g., California) and I drive it in any other state without displaying a front license plate. Is there any state in which I could be cited for a legal infraction?

  • As a practical matter, the rule about needing a front plate in CA is rarely enforced but I found it very enforced at LAX. – George White Oct 24 '19 at 22:08
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it makes the presumption that the OP's wording is correct when it is not. All states have a law saying you must display a plate and that would not mean just one or the other. – Putvi Oct 25 '19 at 22:17
  • @Putvi: If there's a "wording" problem I think it would more constructive to elaborate on what that is than to VTC. – feetwet Oct 25 '19 at 23:10
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At least some two-plate states suggest that if you're registered in a two-plate state you must display both plates within their borders. And some even suggest you must have two plates even if your state only issues one, though this scenario would probably not withstand federal scrutiny. In Washington,

License plates must be: (i) Attached conspicuously at the front and rear of each vehicle if two license plates have been issued; (ii) Attached to the rear of the vehicle if one license plate has been issued.

If it was issued, you must display it. California law says

(a) When two license plates are issued by the department for use upon a vehicle, they shall be attached to the vehicle for which they were issued, one in the front and the other in the rear. (b) When only one license plate is issued for use upon a vehicle, it shall be attached to the rear thereof, unless the license plate is issued for use upon a truck tractor, in which case the license plate shall be displayed in accordance with Section 4850.5.

So if you were issued one, you can drive with one, and if the department (arguably and statutorily "The Department of Motor Vehicles") issued two, you must display both. You might think that you could therefore remove one out of state plate when in California, but they also require (as of this year) that

(a) A license plate issued by this state or any other jurisdiction within or without the United States shall be attached upon receipt and remain attached during the period of its validity to the vehicle for which it is issued while being operated within this state or during the time the vehicle is being held for sale in this state, or until the time that a vehicle with special or identification plates is no longer entitled to those plates; and a person shall not operate, and an owner shall not knowingly permit to be operated, upon any highway, a vehicle unless the license plate is so attached.

The law in Oregon says

A person commits the offense of failure to display registration plates if the person operates, on the highways of this state, any vehicle or camper that has been assigned registration plates by this state and the registration plates assigned to the vehicle or camper are displayed in a manner that violates any of the following: (a) The plate must be displayed on the rear of the vehicle, if only one plate is required. (b) Plates must be displayed on the front and rear of the vehicle if two plates are required.

Somehow, they failed to cover the condition that a person does not have plates issued by Oregon. The law in Ohio is that

(1) No person who is the owner or operator of a motor vehicle shall fail to display in plain view on the front and rear of the motor vehicle a license plate that bears the distinctive number and registration mark assigned to the motor vehicle by the director of public safety, including any county identification sticker and any validation sticker issued under sections 4503.19 and 4503.191 of the Revised Code

This doesn't even make an exception for vehicles from some adjacent state which have only one plate. If you otherwise keep your nose clean, the law says

A law enforcement officer shall only issue a ticket, citation, or summons, or cause the arrest or commence a prosecution, for the failure to display a license plate in plain view on the front of a parked motor vehicle if the officer first determines that another offense has occurred and either places the operator or vehicle owner under arrest or issues a ticket, citation, or summons to the operator or vehicle owner for the other offense.

but you can still get busted for driving your car. Finally, Montana says

a person may not operate a motor vehicle, trailer, semitrailer, pole trailer, or travel trailer upon the public highways of Montana unless the motor vehicle, trailer, semitrailer, pole trailer, or travel trailer is properly registered and has the proper license plates conspicuously displayed... (1-plate exception for motorcycles etc)...All other motor vehicles must have one license plate displayed on the front and one license plate displayed on the rear of the motor vehicle.

One thing to notice is that these laws are in sections on vehicle registration and not operation, where separate sections of the code regarding street-legal vehicles prohibit driving without lights or a muffler. Under the full faith and credit clause, I think your act of registering a vehicle in PA is given credit in OH, because the requirement pertains to registering, not the conditions for legal operation on the road.

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  • So the tl;dr answer is be something like, "The code of at least some two-plate states says that if you're registered in a two-plate state you must display both plates within their borders. And some even suggest you must have two plates even if your state only issues one, though this scenario would probably not withstand federal scrutiny." Right? – feetwet Oct 25 '19 at 19:14
  • How do you feel that the word plate refers to any in his answer and only to IL plates in my answer @feetwet – Putvi Oct 28 '19 at 22:25
  • @Putvi because some laws cited here either make it clear that they are referring only to plates issued by the state (as in the case of Oregon), or account for states that only issue one plate (as in the case of California's law). In the case of the other states referenced it's not clear whether their two-plate laws mean to be applied to vehicles from other states, but this answer explicitly points out that ambiguity and gives a good legal explanation for why they would not (they address registration, not operation) and could not (full faith and credit). – feetwet Oct 28 '19 at 23:23
  • @feetwet I agree about the Oregon law, but the CA law says department referring to a CA agency. The CA one does not mention other states. However, I don't understand how you don't feel all these laws use the term plate, but the intention is you display the plate or plates properly, since law enforcement has interpreted it this way for years. To each their own, but this question seems like a major major stretch. – Putvi Oct 29 '19 at 17:59
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Yeah, of course, it would be the same as not displaying the plate. It's just a ticket, but technically you would be breaking the law.

http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/fulltext.asp?DocName=062500050K3-413

(b) Except for vehicles with rear loaded motorized forklifts, every registration plate or digital registration plate shall at all times be securely fastened in a horizontal position to the vehicle for which it is issued so as to prevent the plate from swinging and at a height of not less than 5 inches from the ground, measuring from the bottom of such plate, in a place and position to be clearly visible and shall be maintained in a condition to be clearly legible, free from any materials that would obstruct the visibility of the plate.

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    I don't see where or if that law addresses vehicles registered in other states, which is the subject of the question. If Illinois addresses that in any law or rule that would be a helpful answer. – feetwet Oct 24 '19 at 23:01
  • @feetwet you seem to be splitting hairs here. The other answer only mentions specific states and the IL law does not, so the IL law is closer to what was asked for. That law says plates, meaning that it applies to any, so it would be closer to the question. – Putvi Oct 25 '19 at 18:08
  • The IL law you referenced appears to specifically apply to Illinois plates. E.g., section (c) suggests the scope is "permit issued pursuant to this Code", and section (f) only addresses "Illinois registration plate or plates." – feetwet Oct 25 '19 at 19:11
  • @feetwet that is not true in any way. The portion I added in bold clearly states how you display your plates. The 14th amendment gives each state the right to have their laws recognized in other states ie a marriage is a marriage in all 50. The same would apply to plates to make one state's plates legal in all 50. Therefore if the law of IL is that the plates you are issued must be displayed as such, it covers the plates from the state you are from. You are trying to frame the issue differently than how it is. – Putvi Oct 25 '19 at 19:24
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    It sounds like you are either misunderstanding the question, or else your last comment is critical to your answer. Focussing on IL: we already know that IL is a "two-plate" state. The question then is whether/how IL law or regulation addresses out-of-state plates. Are you saying that a car registered in PA, which only gets one plate, will violate IL registration statute if operated on IL roads? Are you saying that IL will enforce the registration laws that apply in the state in which an out-of-state car is registered? Or something else? – feetwet Oct 25 '19 at 23:17

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