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Traffic troubles: Area 51 license plate gets over 300 violations

Over 300 traffic violations have been sent to the wrong man, but he isn’t surprised.

Seven years ago, Reno resident Chris Sandoval, 39, purchased a personalized “Area 51” license plate, driven by his interest at the time in the highly classified facility at Groom Lake.

“At one point in my life, I was convinced that I did see a UFO, only later to learn that it was a DARPA weather balloon,” Sandoval said.

But within a couple weeks, the violations started to arrive for vehicles across the country with the same Area 51 license plates.

“There’s a two-year period where I would just send the original copy back to the agency in a dispute letter,” he said. “There’s probably been about 350 violations that I’ve had to deal with.”

The violations were all from vehicles with the same extraterrestrial- themed plate, but Sandoval’s 2012 BMW wasn’t the culprit.

“(It’s) people who were driving through tolls with Area 51 license plates that they bought at souvenir stores somewhere in Nevada,” Sandoval said.

It’s not a conspiracy, according to Kevin Malone with the Nevada Department of Transportation.

Law enforcement calls the act of masking a license plate with a fake plate “cold plating.”

“I can guarantee you the police take that offense very seriously,” Malone said.

Both souvenir and state-issued plates are created by inmates in a state-of-the-art facility in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, according to the DMV.

Red lettering on the souvenirs is supposed to set the souvenir plates apart from state-issued plates, but it still didn’t stop law enforcement from citing Sandoval for vehicles that have placed the store-bought plate over their registered plate, hiding each individual registered code.

“This can happen with just about any license plate number. People put license plate frames over the state names that can confuse the plate reader,” Malone said.

Two weeks ago, Sandoval said he received a letter from the Metropolitan Police Department saying if he didn’t call a detective back, a warrant for his arrest would be issued.

Law enforcement was looking for a vehicle involved in a hit-and-run accident in Las Vegas with an Area 51 license plate, according to Sandoval.

Sandoval later spoke to Las Vegas police Detective Craig O’Neill, and the matter was settled, but Sandoval has changed his strategy to deal with fraudulent debt claims and impacts on his credit score.

“The license plate is no longer in my name. It belongs to a limited liability company,” he said. “So if one does slip through the cracks and goes to collections, it’ll go into a company name, not a big deal for me.”

Another Nevadan, James Mensinger, had a similar personalized plate that attracted misidentified violations and even action from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., to end his erroneous fines.

Though Mensinger lived under the threat of credit rating ruin, he refused to surrender his Elvis license plate.

It’s a sentiment that Sandoval shares.

“Getting rid of the license plate would never be an option for me,” Sandoval said. “It’s just something you have to pay the price for owning.”

Contact James Schaeffer at jschaeffer@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0214. Follow @jamesmschaeffer on Twitter.

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