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Driving You Crazy: 'Uh, how has this driver gone this long without getting their permanent plates?'

Do temp plates have a grace period of 10 months?
Posted at 6:01 AM, Oct 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-18 11:35:21-04

Whitey Ford from Denver writes, “What is driving you crazy? Do temp plates expire on the date or is there a grace period? Not actual plates, temp tags.”

Whitey, I don't think any state allows for a 10-month grace period. In Colorado, there is no grace period for those temporary license plates. They expire at midnight on the date on the tag and the owner of the vehicle is considered in violation of the law.

Now you are thinking, there must be a big fine awaiting the driver when they go to register the vehicle. Not so, according to Colorado law. Colorado Revised Statutes 42-3-112 (1.5)(a)(III) states that temporary registration permits, like the ones that are put on by a dealership, are not subject to late fees.

Normally, new car owners register their car with the state before the temporary plate expires and you put the month and year stickers on your permanent license plate. When that yearly registration comes due the following year, you have a one-month grace period after the expiration month to register the vehicle and pay all normally-associated taxes and fees. If you register after the grace period, you must pay a $25 late fee for every month, or any portion of a month, your registration is expired. The late fee can add up to a total of no more than $100. So, if you register your car 10 months late the fine is still only $100. That late fee structure does not apply to temporary tagged vehicles.

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If you are now thinking that the expired temporary tag driver is ‘getting away with’ not paying the registration fee and saving hundreds and hundreds of dollars, that is exactly the case. The owner is skirting payment of that year’s taxes and fees. That driver would only pay when, and if, the vehicle is registered at the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles. As Sarah Werner, Communications Manager with the Colorado Department of Revenue tells me, that vehicle owner would be charged the prior year's Specific Ownership Tax at the time of their registration going back to the original date of purchase of the vehicle. The vehicle owner would also be liable for the following year’s ownership taxes and fees as part of the normal registration process.

I then asked Sarah one final scenario. If this driver with the long ago expired tags never comes in to register the vehicle and then sold the vehicle to a private buyer, would that owner get away scot-free from paying any registration taxes or fees? She tells me, yes, they would. “Vehicle owners are only responsible for the registration fees that occur after they take ownership of a vehicle. Fees are paid at the time the vehicle is registered, so if the vehicle was not registered, the fees would not be incurred,” Werner said.

So according to Colorado law, it seems possible for someone to buy a new or used vehicle at a dealer and drive away with a temporary license plate, never get the vehicle registered, sell the vehicle at a later date to a private person and never pay any registration fees for the time the driver owned that vehicle.

What some speculate is happening is, this driver is trying to avoid the very high cost of registering a vehicle which could cost many hundreds, to over a thousand dollars. The “Specific Ownership Tax” paid by vehicle owners in Colorado is based on the year of manufacture of the vehicle and the original taxable value which is determined when the vehicle is new. The amount of tax owed decreases with the age of the vehicle but can be jaw-droppingly high for new vehicles. For example, according to the Vehicle Registration Fee Estimator from Arapahoe County, a new 2018 model year car or SUV would cost $992.50 to register.  

If you are thinking that the expired temporary tag driver can’t get away with this forever, it's all about being lucky enough to not have a police officer see the expired tag and pull the driver over. Vehicle registration is the responsibility of the vehicle owner, and the owner is subject to both law enforcement penalties and prior Specific Ownership Tax payment if their vehicles are not registered.

The penalty for driving with an expired tag for more than 60 days is $75 with an $18 surcharge added on top. The same $75 violation applies if the vehicle with the expired tag is parked along a city street. Denver parking enforcement tells me if one of their enforcement officers spotted this vehicle they would write up the $75 ticket and place it on the window. They tell me the vehicle wouldn’t be booted unless the owner accumulates “a number of” unpaid tickets. However, they tell me that Denver police officers, if they spot a expired tag like this, have the option of writing a ticket and booting the vehicle, releasing it only until the registration is complete. That decision to boot or not to boot is at the discretion of individual officers. 

The Colorado State Patrol tells me if a trooper pulled over a driver with a temporary tag that is expired this long, there is a better-than-average chance they would cite the driver and then have the vehicle towed and impounded until the owner can provide the current registration. That driver would be charged the cost of towing and the daily impound fee on top of the taxes and fees to bring the vehicle up to a current registration.

But yet, there is even another loophole. Julie Brooks with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office tells me, “If a deputy were to observe a vehicle driving on a public roadway with an expired temporary permit they can be stopped and cited. Anything that is expired over three months can be towed at the owner’s expense. The release of the car is up to the tow companies, but generally they have to provide current registration and insurance to drive the car off the lot. It can be released with neither if the car is towed off the lot.”

So that means the driver of the expired temporary tag could drive the car once again without getting it registered if that driver had the car towed out of the impound lot and unloaded on a nearby street. Typical towing fees range from $100 to $200 with another $20 to $30 a day for storage. Those fees are, in many cases half or less than half, of what it would cost to register the vehicle with the state.

To make this situation more aggravating and dangerous, many, if not most, of the people who do this also do not have insurance coverage on the vehicle. Retired Wyoming State Trooper ‎Steve Huntley told me, “I found the main reason people are driving on expired temp tags is no insurance. The license fees are high, but usually the insurance is worse, they can't register without proof of insurance, hence expired temp registration.”

In my research, I didn't find anyone working for the state or local law enforcement who could tell me if this scenario where someone avoids registering their vehicle to avoid registration fees is something they have ever seen before or heard of happening on a regular basis. The overwhelming majority of vehicle owners in Colorado follow the rules and register their car before the expiration date, however, there could be some on our roads who are trying to skirt the law and get away with not paying anything. I can only imagine the feeling those drivers have as they constantly look over their shoulder looking for local police just so they don't get caught not registering their car.

Denver7 traffic anchor Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 20 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook,Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast oniTunesStitcherGoogle PlayPodbean or YouTube