Virginia License Plate Display Laws: Legal Stop?

Northern Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney and Local Fairfax Criminal Lawyer: Know These License Plate Display Laws

Fairfax Criminal LawyerThis article by our Fairfax criminal lawyer and Northern Virginia defense attorney focuses on Virginia license plate laws, but the purpose is larger. Why focus on a seemingly narrow and minor type of infraction?

Simple: traffic stops often give rise to criminal charges above and beyond the reason for the initial stop. And if the stop is illegal, then the evidence seized should be excluded at a trial. If you have a pending traffic matter for allegedly violating a license plate law in Virginia, you may or may not want to talk to a Virginia traffic lawyer. If you face a criminal charge, however, it is very important to speak with a local Northern Virginia defense attorney or our Fairfax criminal lawyer without delay. Regardless of whether or not you face an infraction, criminal charges, or both, please realize that the information on this page is meant to educate, inform, but not to provide legal advice. Laws change frequently as does case law. Contact us here to request a consultation.

Consider the following example to illustrate why knowledge of basic traffic laws is important:

Example to Illustrate Complications Stemming from a Traffic Stop Due to a Minor Infraction: Possession of Marijuana in Virginia

My experience: based on cases I have handled, studied, and witnessed in Northern Virginia, many traffic stops are based upon license plate requirements, decals, registration requirements and other similar low-level traffic violations. I will cover some of these basic laws on this page.

When a Virginia driver is cited for a traffic infraction, he or she is typically issued a ticket and told they are free to leave. But sometimes, a traffic stop leads to probable cause that another crime has occurred. One of the most common examples of this is possession of marijuana charges in Virginia. Many possession of marijuana charges (in my experience), stem from traffic stops, probably due to the odor most strains of Cannabis give off. In some cases, it is not the smell but the sight (in plain view) that gives rise to a criminal possession charge. In any event, had the traffic stop not occurred, the individual would not be facing a criminal charge.

Virginia License Plate Laws Summarized by Our Northern Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney and Fairfax Criminal Lawyer

Northern Virginia Criminal Attorney and Traffic Lawyer Brent VincenzesResearch is a good idea, but consulting a knowledgeable active Virginia traffic lawyer and / or local Fairfax traffic attorney is the best idea.

There are specific rules in Virginia governing what may and may not be affixed to, or surrounding a license plate (along with many other nuances and detailed laws).

The first license plate law covered by our Fairfax Criminal Lawyer on this page deals with the visibility, condition, and legibility of the license plate.


This law is easy to violate:

Virginia Code § 46.2-716

You can read the law word for word here, but as of the publishing date (September 15, 2014), the paraphrased summary below may be easier to comprehend (remember, if you are faced with a criminal or traffic violation and are reading this because you have a question, the best idea is to actually speak with a local Northern Virginia defense attorney (or if near our office, our experienced Fairfax criminal lawyer).

The law can be summarized as follows:

This applies to vehicles, trailers, semitrailers, and motor vehicles requiring license plates…

Must be Fastened Securely

Rule 1: the license plate has to be attached securely.

How secure? It cannot swing (and has to be fastened in such a way so as to prevent it from swinging).

Positioning Can’t Impede Visibility

Rule 2: the license plate and all of the information contained on the license plate must be in a position that does not impede complete visibility.

Condition Must be Legible

Rule 3: the license plate’s condition must not be so worn or tattered (or otherwise) so as to render it anything but clearly legible.

Plastics, covers, brackets, mountings, frames, hitches, emblems, etc.

Rule 4: it is against the law to have anything covering, altering, or obscuring the information on the license plate. This includes not only the plate number, but also the color, name of the state, or any other decal (such as the stamps indicating the expiration date of registration).

note: the actual law references colored glass, colored plastic, but not clear glass or clear plastic. It should be assumed that clear glass or clear plastic would be illegal just like colored glass, if it obscures the visibility or legibility of the information on the plate in any way. The more difficult question – and issue important to some cases – concerns itself with the issue of a clear, non-obstructing cover. Video evidence, or evidence of the actual cover may be sought in defense of a case.

More license plate laws in Virginia

Use of license plates from another vehicle…is it ever legal? This code section (§ 46.2-720) states that if an owner who has been assigned license plates by the Department of Motor Vehicles, he or she may use them on another vehicle owned by an individual who operates a garage or owned by a dealer, but there is a five day limit, and moreover, the use is constrained to the time period during which the first vehicle is undergoing repair (or while the second vehicle is loaned for demonstration (see § 46.2-719 for more details).

Altered Plates, Fake Decals…The Penalty?

Altering plates or using false decals (or trying to game the system in any way) is not just a traffic infraction, but a criminal offense. In Virginia, criminal charges remain on an adult’s record for life unless expunged, and as our Fairfax Criminal Lawyer has published articles on extensively in the past, expungement is not always an option. Not all Class 1 misdemeanors are created equally (i.e., altered tags could imply an action or violation of law that may be viewed upon as more indicative of character depending, of course, on the severity of each respective hypothetical case).

What does the law say about altered or forged license plates?

Virginia Code § 46.2-722 makes it a crime to alter a license plate or decal…even if it is a decal or license plate issued by a state other than the Commonwealth of Virginia!

Not surprisingly, it is also a crime to create or possess a counterfeit license plate or decal. There is a mental state requirement to be convicted: fraudulent intent. The fraudulent intent standard is not just applicable to the actual forger (or person who altered it), but also to the person who is using it (if he/she knew it was indeed forged/altered).

It is a Class 1 Misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in confinement and a fine of over two thousand dollars. The severity of the sentence upon conviction depends on the nature of the case (just like all other crimes, except for limited circumstances such as mandatory minimum states (e.g., DWI).

Recap of License Plate Display Laws from Fairfax Criminal Lawyer and Northern Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney:

There are numerous laws governing the operation of motor vehicles in the Commonwealth of Virginia. An officer can initiate a traffic stop if he or she witnesses a violation of law, including something as minor as a slightly obscured license plate. Whether or not that traffic stop is lawful or not will be sorted out later by: the court if you go to trial; your Virginia defense attorney; the Commonwealth’s Attorney; and, any evidence at trial.

A vehicle search may or may not require consent to be legal – your Fairfax criminal lawyer or Northern Virginia defense attorney will explain whether or not the consent (or lack thereof) makes a difference if you face a pending charge; whether or not consent (if given) was voluntary; and, much more. Sometimes, serious criminal cases are won because the client’s Virginia criminal lawyer successfully convinces the court or prosecuting attorney that the traffic stop that led to the discovery of evidence or illegal contraband was not lawful from the start.

It may surprise some people to learn how many United States Constitutional issues are implicated when a person is stopped, searched, and when items are seized. Search and seizure laws, 4th Amendment issues, and probable cause are a few of the many things your Northern Virginia defense attorney may or may not discuss with you upon a consultation. Instead of researching tirelessly, a free consultation is not hard to find if you are looking to learn more about your charge and potential case outcomes from a local Fairfax criminal lawyer, Virginia traffic attorney, and skilled litigator at Vincenzes Law, PLLC.

Make sure your vehicle is legal. It is impossible to live your entire life knowing every law applicable, and as a result, it is no surprise how many good people find them under law enforcement scrutiny.

Know your rights if you have an upcoming court date. Do not wait too long to talk to an attorney, because depending on the issues raised by the facts of your case, certain pretrial motions and filings may be to a defendant’s advantage. Furthermore, waiting too long can result in forfeiture of certain rights. Call 703.665.3719 to talk to our Northern Virginia criminal defense attorney and Fairfax criminal lawyer today and request a consultation by phone or in our office located in Fairfax, Virginia.

Read more about common traffic-related criminal charges:

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Brenton D. Vincenzes is a lifelong Fairfax County resident and Fairfax Criminal Defense Lawyer. He is a member of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National College of DUI Defense, NORML, and has been awarded the following in 2014-15: Top 100 Trial Lawyer (National Trial Lawyers) Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer (National Trial Lawyers) Nationally Ranked Top 10 Under 40 Defense Attorney (National Academy of Criminal Defense Attorneys) 10 Best in Client Satisfaction for Criminal Defense (American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys) Nationally Ranked Top 1% Attorney Award Recipient (National Association of Distinguished Counsel) As a local leader, Mr. Vincenzes mentors troubled youths, volunteers his time to serve at his church, takes select pro bono clients, and strives to improve the community. Mr. Vincenzes represents men, women, and juveniles through zealous and diligent advocacy, strategic planning, and skilled trial work preparation. Mr. Vincenzes' areas of criminal law practice are broad, and include most felonies and misdemeanors such as: reckless driving, DUI & DWI, drug offenses, assault and battery, domestic violence, assault on an officer, destruction of property, alcohol offenses, firearm offenses, larceny, shoplifting, embezzlement, fraud, and other theft offenses, and moving traffic violations among others. His private legal services are available in most Northern Virginia jurisdictions, including Fairfax County, Arlington County, Prince William County, Loudoun County, Stafford County, Alexandria, Manassas, Leesburg, South Riding, and other cities and towns.


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