CARSON CITY — Only a few hours elapsed between the time Virginia Saucedo learned of the Nevada Highway Patrol’s crackdown on out-of-state license plates and when her car was parked at the Department of Motor Vehicles inspection station.
Although Nevada law allows residents 30 days to register their vehicles in the state and Saucedo has lived in Las Vegas two weeks only, she didn’t want to take any chances.
“I don’t want to get a ticket,” she said. “I saw the news, and I said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to pay a $1,000 ticket. I like to have everything straight.’ ”
With state and local governments looking for every penny of uncollected taxes and fees, the Highway Patrol in April will embark on a campaign to check whether Nevada residents have Nevada license plates on their motor vehicles.
A law that went into effect July 1 hits drivers in their wallets if they don’t comply. Instead of just a $250 fine for not registering their vehicle, they face a fine of $1,000 if they avoid changing their registration for six months or more. Under the old law, they had 60 days to change. Now they have only 30 days, when the fines kick in starting at $250.
During hearings, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, said Nevada loses tens of millions of dollars a year because drivers don’t change their registrations.
Parks said that 52,000 people in 2009 and 58,000 in 2010 were cited for failing to change registrations. Some didn’t comply, he testified, because the $250 fine was cheaper than the cost of acquiring new auto insurance in Nevada. His bill passed unanimously.
FINDING THE VIOLATORS
Finding scofflaws who fail to get Nevada plates won’t be easy because troopers will be checking only when they stop cars for moving violations. They do not intend to go house to house, and they are not asking for help from citizens who want to snitch on neighbors who haven’t changed their plates.
“If they have a Nevada driver’s license when we stop them and their car registration is for California, then that is the most common giveaway,” trooper Chuck Allen said.
He said troopers also will suspect the driver is a resident if their car carries a sticker like “My child is an honor student” followed by the name of a school in Nevada. But largely they will be relying on the honesty of the driver and their own investigative skills.
Officers always have checked to see whether cars are properly registered, but the new emphasis will be on how drivers are hurting their own state and schools by not paying to register vehicles in Nevada, he said Tuesday.
Complicating matters for troopers are the state laws that allow out-of-state students, active members of the military, and “snowbirds” to keep the license plates of their own states.
Others must comply or risk the fines. Department of Motor Vehicle spokesman Tom Jacobs said where a resident owns property makes no difference. Residents who are residents or are gainfully employed in Nevada must register their vehicle in Nevada.
Earlier this week, Park released a legal opinion from the legislative counsel that specifies that snowbirds, part-time residents and others do not have to register their vehicles unless they become actual state residents.
Parks said he secured the opinion after receiving complaints from people that deputy constables in Las Vegas townships were going to apartment complexes and looking for out-of-state plates on cars. They then would tell snowbirds that they had to register and insure their vehicles in Nevada if they stayed for more than 30 days. Parks said they would issue a citation with a form to pay a $100 fine to the constable’s enterprise fund.
But the March 21 opinion by Legislative Counsel Brenda Erdoes said that border state residents, tourists or seasonal residents in Nevada do not have to change plates even if they are in the state for more than 30 days in a year. Requiring them to do so would place an “unconstitutional burden on the ability of the nonresident to engage in interstate travel,” she stated.
Lou Toomin, a spokesman for the constable’s office, said he has requested another meeting with Parks to clarify what constables should do.
Toomin said constables do not go to apartments to look for out-of-state plates but only to residences where “neighbors have ratted their neighbors out” for not getting new plates. They cited 6,163 people last year, bringing in $1 million to state and local governments.
“The reality is, in the state of Nevada, the bulk of vehicle registration fees go to the county and school district in which that motorist lives,” said Chris Perry, director of the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Highway Patrol. “Additional resources are needed by the county and appropriate school district as individuals and their families move into the state.”
‘COMPLY BEFORE YOU GET CAUGHT’
The Department of Motor Vehicles has no estimate on the number of vehicles that are not properly registered. Bruce Breslow, DMV director, said $33 of the annual car registration fee goes to the state highway fund. The remainder goes to the appropriate county and school districts.
Officers suspect some of the violators register their cars in Oregon, which has lower fees, and fail to change the registration to Nevada.
In Reno, the cost of registering a car with a retail value of $25,000 is $383, compared with $195 in Oregon. Oregon also has no sales tax, which saves motorists thousands of dollars on their vehicle purchases.
Rather than risking a fine, Breslow suggests that Nevadans “comply before you get caught.”
Dawn Petrich was at the Sahara Avenue DMV office Wednesday morning doing just that. She moved to Nevada from Washington in September and tried to register her motorcycle then. A snag in paperwork held up the process, but everything was in order Wednesday.
She understands why others might wait longer than 30 days to register their vehicles in Nevada.
“A lot of people are broke, and they can’t afford it,” she said.
Another man, who declined to give his name, theorized that some drivers move to Las Vegas for labor or odd jobs with under-the-table pay. He said they probably have criminal backgrounds and don’t want to be caught.
“It would take awhile for the law to catch up with you,” he said. “If you go to a government office, they will track you down.”
He said residents are only adding to the state’s economic woes.
“We have a decrease in visitors and that money goes to the state. Now they’re not getting money from local residents,” he said. “It hurts the educational system.”
Review-Journal writer Adrienne Packer contributed to this report. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.