Is It Illegal to Drive With a License Plate Cover Provided By a Car Dealership?

A Driver May Be Charged With An Offence For Failing to Ensure That a License Plate Is Unobstructed Whereas the Highway Traffic Act Requires Drivers to Ensure That Vehicle License Plates Are Unobscured By Objects As Well As Clear of Dirt and Snow.

Understanding the Requirement to Keep Vehicle License Plates Unobscured By Objects As Well As Free of Dirt and Snow

Vehicle License Plate Obscured By Snow The visibility of a license plate, whether the plate is attached to a vehicle or a trailer, must be unobscured.  A driver may be charged with, and convicted of, an offence for operating a vehicle, or vehicle with trailer, where the numbers and registration sticker are obscured by objects, by dirt, or by snow.

The Law

The Highway Traffic Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, at section 13, prescribes the mandate for keeping license plates unobscured and properly visible. Specifically, section 13 states:

Number plates, further violations
No other numbers to be exposed

13 (1) No number other than that upon the number plate furnished by the Ministry shall be exposed on any part of a motor vehicle or trailer in such a position or manner as to confuse the identity of the number plate.

Number plate to be kept clean

(2) Every number plate shall be kept free from dirt and obstruction and shall be affixed so that the entire number plate, including the numbers, is plainly visible at all times, and the view of the number plate shall not be obscured or obstructed by spare tires, bumper bars, any part of the vehicle, any attachments to the vehicle or the load carried.

Obstruction prohibited

(3) The number plates shall not be obstructed by any device that prevents the entire number plates including the numbers from being accurately photographed using an automated speed enforcement system.

Same

(3.0.1) The number plates shall not be obstructed by any device that prevents the entire number plates including the numbers from being accurately photographed using a red light camera system.

Same

(3.1) The number plates shall not be obstructed by any device or material that prevents the entire number plates including the numbers from being identified by an electronic toll system.

Offence

(4) Every person who contravenes subsection (2), (3), (3.0.1) or (3.1) is guilty of an offence.

Interestingly, the case law on the issue of an obscured license plate appears to address only the concerns of a driver causing, or allowing, an interference in license plate visibility whereas the law merely requires that a driver ensure that an obstacle to viewing be prevented.  Accordingly, and as appears clear, the law requires that a driver must ensure that an obstacle, such as a spare tire or hitch mounted bicycles, etc., avoids interfering with plate visilibity and that a driver must also make an effort to keep dirt and snow, among other things, from obscuring a license plate; however, the Highway Traffic Act appears silent on the issue of a license plate that is faded, or otherwise difficult to read, due to wear and tear or an inherent flaw in the license plate itself, such as poor quality paint or laminate.  The issue of license plates faded by age or wear and tear arose in the case of R. v. Hoffner, 2013 ONCJ 510, wherein the court addressed the concern and found that the Highway Traffic Act fails to address the concern.  In another interesting case, R. v. Cabeldu, 2016 ONCJ 756, the court deemed that where a promotional plate cover of an automobile dealership covered, and thereby obstructed, a portion of a license plate, specifically the phrase, "Yours to Discover", such an obscuring was irrelevant to the purpose of the law; and accordingly, a charge for obscured license plate was dismissed.  Specifically in these cases, the courts respectively said:

In section 13(1) it says no number other than that upon the number plate furnished by the Ministry shall be exposed on any part of a motor vehicle or trailer in such a position or manner as to confuse the identity of the number plate.  That’s not the case here.  Subsection 2 – number plate to be kept clean.  Every number plate shall be kept free from dirt and obstruction and shall be affixed so that the entire plate including the numbers is plainly visible at all times.  And the view of the number plate shall not be obscured or obstructed by spare tires, bumper bars or any part of the vehicle.  Any attachments to the vehicle or the load carried.

Now this section seems to talk about an active, an action taken by a defendant that would obstruct the plate.  I have no evidence that there was dirt and the numbers faded would be plainly visible except by reason that they were faded.  It was not obscured or obstructed by spare tires, bumper bars or any part of the vehicle or attachments.

Now subsection 3 says the number plate shall not be obstructed by any device that prevents the entire number plates including numbers from being accurately photographed using a photo radar system.

And 3.0.1 says not obstructed by any device that prevents the entire plates, entire number plates including numbers from being accurately photographed using red light camera systems.

And 3.1 shall not be obstructed by any device or material.

When you look at these additional sections they’re all talking about obstruction.  They don’t talk about the age of the plate or the fact that the plate just wears out by normal wear and tear.  It’s almost as if the Ministry or the legislature didn’t address this issue.  So while I agree that faded plates should be required to be changed, I’m not satisfied that I can stretch this section to cover that.

It is not similar to the light section pointed out to me by the prosecution which says from the front of a car only a white or amber light should be visible.  From the rear of the car only a red light should be visible.  Thus if you put another light underneath the car that’s visible from the front or the back you’ve breached the section.

There is not anything actively done by the defendant to obstruct this plate and the section speaks of some sort of action in order to obstruct the plate.  On that basis I’m going to dismiss the charges; but if I’m wrong, if a higher court reasons that faded plates equals obstruction and if that were the case given that the defendant replaced the plates as soon as he was able to replace them, I would have suspended sentence.  So I’m dismissing the charges.

... I took judicial notice that plate covers are prevalent in Ontario covering the words “Yours to Discover” and I am unaware of having seen an obstruct charge of this nature in my court, except for tinted plate covers over the entire plate.

The covers in question do not obstruct the numbers or the validation sticker, they only cover the words “Yours to Discover”.

No case law was cited to support the finding of guilt on similar charges and I note no evidence was presented that these plate covers which I found to be used commonly in the Province were discouraged by the police through enforcement initiatives similar to ride programs, or seatbelt enforcement, or stop sign initiatives, or hand held communication device enforcement.

In arriving at my decision based on this evidence which I ;accept, I conclude that the intent of the section was to prevent numbers and validation stickers from being obstructed.  I note other subparagraphs in the section address things like preventing obstruction for photo radar, red light camera enforcement and identification for toll roads, none of which are inhibited or obstructed by the plates in question.

I concluded that the plate covers in this case do not interfere with the intent of the statute, and I find in addition that there is no cited authority to support that there is any enforcement of this section based on its literal reading.  If a higher Court finds that I have made an error in law, then I wish to put on record that with the same facts as presented to me in this case in the same or similar circumstances I would have suspended sentence.

Summary Comment

The Highway Traffic Act requires drivers to keep license plates unobstructed by bicycle racks, or other objects, as well as to keep clear license plates of dirt and snow.  Essentially, the law requires that license plates be visible to police officers, police technology such as automated readers, speed cameras, red light cameras, and automated readers used for toll highways.  Interestingly, the Highway Traffic Act appears to lack a mandate to change old and worn license plates.  Also interesting, despite the Highway Traffic Act stating that an entire license plate must be visible, the court, in at least one case, has deemed that only the registration numbers and registration sticker must be visible.

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