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It took 7 years, but vote OKs ban on license plate covers

PHOENIX — After seven years of trying, a Democratic lawmaker has scored an initial success in getting Arizona to ban license plate covers typically used to prevent photo enforcement cameras from capturing an image of the plate.

Senate Bill 1073 by Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, was approved by the Senate on a 20-10 vote Thursday and now heads to the House. Farley has been pushing identical legislation since 2011 without it ever getting a vote.

“It just seems to me that if we’re going to have a law to have a license plate in the first place, we might as well have laws to make sure that those license plates are legible,” Farley said in an interview after the vote.

Farley began his legislative career in the House in 2007 and moved to the Senate in 2013. He said his proposal isn’t just about photo enforcement. Instead, the covers are a safety issue.

“If you’re a witness to a crime, if you’re a law enforcement officer, that becomes incredibly dangerous and bad guys get away,” he told the Senate Transportation and Technology Committee last month.

The covers can obscure the numbers, letters and tags because of the sun’s position during some times of the day and make it hard to read the plate, he said.

When Farley brings up the issue, he said people don’t believe covering a plate isn’t already illegal. An exchange during the Jan. 24 hearing backs him up.

“I thought it was already illegal?” asked Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott.

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, chimed in, saying she got a ticket for having one of the semi-clear plastic covers on her license plate.

“Some visionary cop gave you a ticket that’s not legal yet,” Sen. Bob Worsley quipped.

There actually is a law that requires license plates to be clearly legible, meaning free of dirt or mud or obstructions like a cover that makes it impossible to read. But it’s not a blanket prohibition like Farley is seeking.

Raul Garcia, a civilian Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman and former state trooper, said tickets can be written to drivers with damaged plates or with the anti-photo radar covers over their plates. He said the covers aren’t as common as they were several years ago, but he agreed that they can be a safety issue. The department hasn’t taken a position on Farley’s legislation.

Garcia said he has ticketed drivers if he could not see the plate, taking a photo from an angle to show it was unreadable. He sometimes got pushback from drivers who didn’t want to remove them.

“The next question would be, ‘if and when your vehicle is stolen, is this something you want on your vehicle so that a law enforcement officer or a witness is not able to provide the license plate information to a dispatcher?’ ” he said. “When it’s not clearly visible … it becomes a problem for officer safety and for general law enforcement reasons.”