They Dispense Street Justice, One Defaced License Plate at a Time
Pedaling his bike along a Brooklyn street, Gersh Kuntzman cast his eyes over a row of parked cars and stopped in front of a white Nissan Rogue. Its crumpled license plate was unreadable.
“We call this the fold,” said Mr. Kuntzman with an air of expertise. “I love unfolding them.”
Seeing no car owner around, he took it upon himself to straighten the plate before moving on to look for the next obscured tag. There were plenty.
To avoid detection by speed and red-light cameras, as well as bridge and tunnel tolls that can reach $16 for a car, scofflaw drivers cover plates with camera-proof screens and sprays, as well as stickers, tape and other objects. They scrape off letters and use temporary paper tags and even retractor mechanisms.
But as this tampering has proliferated, a hardy band of vigilante inspectors like Mr. Kuntzman has sprung into action, hunting for defaced plates to un-deface and posting their exploits online to raise awareness and urge more enforcement.
Camera evasions have soared to millions a year, yet police summonses for illegal plates have dropped from last year. In all, the city and local transit agencies are being robbed of well over $100 million a year, officials say.
Citizen enforcers like Mr. Kuntzman argue that illegal plates also encourage dangerous driving in a city where at least 125 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed this year.
Of course, approaching New Yorkers’ cars to examine, photograph and repair their license plates is no game, and some inspectors have been attacked and even arrested. Mr. Kuntzman, the editor of Streetsblog NYC, said he has been threatened but never physically accosted, despite the fact that he carries a screwdriver to remove covers or bogus plates and has a blue Sharpie that he uses to restore plate letters and numbers that have been scraped away.
Mr. Kuntzman began making videos of his exploits last month after the arrest of Adam White, a lawyer and safe-streets advocate who was charged with criminal mischief after removing an object obscuring the license plate of an S.U.V. in Brooklyn.
The arrest of Mr. White, 58, became a cause célèbre in safe-street advocacy circles. His charges were dropped this month.
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Drivers with E-ZPasses pay tolls automatically. But those without are billed by mail according to their license plates, which are photographed as they pass. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it loses around $50 million a year in evaded tolls on its bridges and tunnels. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says it loses more than $40 million a year.
Authorities have announced various crackdowns in recent years, and reminded the public that offenders can be fined hundreds of dollars and even arrested, a risk that does not seem to deter everyone, given the thousands of dollars to be saved by persisting.
But the police have given out far fewer plate citations during traffic stops this year, issuing only 5,490, compared to 14,000 over the same period last year. They did, however, issue more summonses to parked vehicles: 24,273 compared to 20,056 during the same period last year.
Advocates call those enforcement numbers small when considering the millions of car trips and the rate of offenses.
In fact, Mr. White said, part of the problem is that many police and city officials, rather than denouncing scofflaws or enforcing the license plate laws, are some of the most brazen offenders. He and other advocates say they frequently observe high concentrations of illegal plates around courthouses and police precincts.
Liam Quigley, a freelance reporter in Brooklyn, said he specifically fixes the plates of city-owned vehicles, which he has seen obscured by “a wide taxonomy” of objects.
“They use fast-food bags, surgical masks, electrical tape, stickers; they bend the plate in half or under the bumper. They’re very creative,” said Mr. Quigley, who said he had no problem doing a snap repair on a vehicle waiting at a red light.
A Police Department statement said the agency takes license plate tampering “very seriously regardless of whether it is a member of the public or one of our officers.”
The department said it routinely inspects officers’ cars for compliance and that officers who violate the law are disciplined and held accountable.
Mr. Kuntzman’s Streetsblog NYC covers what he calls “the livable streets movement,” and his contempt for the city’s autocentric qualities was evident from a sticker on his bike referring to a “War on Cars.”
Pedaling along North Portland Street in Brooklyn recently, he spied a BMW with one of its license numbers perfectly obscured by a leaf that had seemingly been pasted on the plate. He promptly removed the leaf, calling it a common scam.
Noah McClain, a sociologist with Santa Clara University in California is writing an academic journal article about New York’s failure to crack down on plate tampering and what it says about the “street-level privilege” granted to a set of New Yorkers.
Lacking hard data on the number of defaced plates, Mr. McClain has tried to take his own inventory by conducting plate censuses in Brooklyn neighborhoods and by setting up a video camera to scan cars using the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
City cameras have their own problems. Last year, roughly 2,200 speed cameras and about 220 red-light cameras assigned fines that brought in more than $200 million. But the Department of Transportation said that roughly 4 percent of its 28 million camera activations were foiled by unreadable plates compared to prepandemic averages of well under 1 percent.
Scofflaws have had still more incentive since speed cameras started operating around the clock in August. And the stakes could rise enormously with the arrival of congestion pricing — which will rely on cameras to assign tolls that are several times the present bridge and tunnel rates — to parts of Manhattan.
Bills currently pending in city and state legislatures would offer cash rewards for reporting illegal license plates and also drivers who block bus and bike lanes or park illegally by using government-issued placards — offenses that have also incurred the wrath of citizen patrollers.
“Government doesn’t seem interested in solving this problem, which is why you’re seeing so many people feeling the need to take matters into their own hands,” said Doug Gordon, a television writer and producer who co-hosts a podcast called “The War on Cars.” He called what Mr. Kuntzman and other citizen whistle-blowers are doing “a theatrical form of protest.”
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it has issued more than 40,000 summonses for illegal license plates since 2017, including roughly 6,800 this year. The Port Authority issued 2,032 this year.
The M.T.A. said it had also made dozens of arrests this year for illegal license plates. In a sting operation in September, officers seized 17 cars whose owners owed the agency over $530,000 in tolls and fines.
And last year the M.T.A. announced that one of its employees racked up more than $100,000 in fines and unpaid tolls over several years of avoiding cameras by using a variety of license plates and a plastic cover. The employee was caught after being overheard at work bragging about his exploits.
“People feel like they can totally do this and there’s nothing anyone’s going to say to stop them,” said Mr. White.
Mr. White said he often watches out for illegal license plates while biking from his Brooklyn home to his downtown Manhattan office. In the case of a car bearing a Police Department placard parked regularly near City Hall in Lower Manhattan, he fixed the plate numerous times, finding it bent back identically each time.
Most of the time, the citizen enforcers do their work on cars that are parked and empty, but sometimes drivers have confronted the inspectors for touching or even merely checking out their license plates.
Tony Melone, a Brooklyn musician and street-safety advocate, has called 311 hundreds of times to report a variety of driver offenses.
In March, a driver he yelled at for blocking a bike lane chased him for blocks until a passenger jumped out and knocked him unconscious, breaking his leg. The car was captured on surveillance video, but because its plate was covered with a camera-proof screen, the driver could not be identified, Mr. Melone said.
Mr. White said he had been told countless times on social media to mind his own business and once got punched in the head and his glasses broken after taking a photo of a reckless driver’s license plate in traffic.
To take advantage of Mr. White’s arrest, Mr. Kuntzman turned the dismissed charge into a tagline and began posting videos of himself fixing defaced plates over a soundtrack featuring a song he composed and sang called “Criminal Mischief.”
“I’m trying to show the political establishment that this is really a widespread problem,” said Mr. Kuntzman. “I could fix 15 plates a day without breaking a sweat.”