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Expired temporary tag

Expired temporary tag spotted on a vehicle driving on MLK at Jefferson across from the police substation (10/30/18) Photo by Gilbert Bailon

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri officials unveiled a new temporary license plate this month designed to deter people from making fraudulent tags, but it’s not clear how much it might stop drivers from using them long after they expire.

The new tags, which cost the same to produce as the soon-to-be phased out paper tags, are outfitted with enhanced security features, including a reflective, holographic image that can be seen day and night. There is also an anti-copying feature — the word “VOID” will appear if someone attempts to reproduce an existing license.

“We always strive to ensure proper registration and identification of vehicles operated on Missouri roadways, and anything that aids law enforcement and keeps vehicles legal and safe is a win for Missouri,” said Department of Revenue Director Ken Zellers.

The use of expired temporary tags has been a vexing issue in the St. Louis region for years. The department says an estimated 32,000 license plate scofflaws are costing the state as much as $26 million in unpaid sales tax revenue, said Revenue department spokeswoman Anne Marie Moy.

When Jimmie Edwards became public safety director for St. Louis in late 2017, he told city police officers to keep a close eye out for cars with expired temporary tags and license plates, and to cite the drivers.

St. Louis police last year issued more than 13,000 tickets in the city for operating without a proper vehicle license. That’s nearly 3,000 more than in 2017.

State lawmakers also have tried to address the problem, approving a state law in 2018 requiring people to turn in the temporary tags to a state license office when they show up to get their permanent plates and pay sales tax on their newly purchased vehicle.

That measure aims to keep temporary tags — which are valid for just 30 days — from showing up illegally on another vehicle.

However, the law neither requires nor allows the department to refuse to issue a plate if a temporary tag isn’t turned in, Moy said.

Despite the new law and stepped-up enforcement, the problem persists. One factor may be the cost of renewing license plates in Missouri. Safety and emissions tests often are required, as are proof of insurance and a paid personal property tax receipt. On top of that are registration and processing fees.

When someone buys a car in Missouri, they don’t pay the 4.225% sales tax at the dealership. Rather, people pay the tax to the state when they get their license plates.

Another reason for the uptick may be tied to the Legislature’s 2015 overhaul of municipal court practices, which critics said preyed on the poor.

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A provision in that law says people can be fined no more than $300 for traffic offenses and cities can’t add an extra “failure to appear” charge because an offender misses a court date.

That means more people might ignore tickets because there are no consequences for failing to show up for their court date.

Moy said some of the suggested changes that could reduce the number of people who don’t pay sales taxes are out of the department’s hands.

“Collecting tax at dealerships would likely require either a legislative change or that the dealers issue title to purchasers themselves,” Moy said.

Moy did not address the issue of cost to alter the system so that sales taxes are paid at the time of purchase, but previous estimates have put it at $70 million.

In the first six months of 2019, nearly 350,000 temporary registration permits were issued for cars, trucks, trailers and motorcycles. The state currently has 4.9 million licensed vehicles, according to a department tally.

The department projects that dealers and license offices will have the new permits in stock no later than February.

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