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Highway Safety Initiatives

License Plates as Crime Stoppers

By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant Technical Management Manager, IACP

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he license plate should be a vital, cost-effective, and readily identifiable law enforcement tool. Every U.S. state and Canadian province mandates its display, and information concerning these plates is accessible to police officers in real time. Noncompliance with a jurisdiction’s vehicle registration laws can serve as a gateway to clearing serious crime. For example, a vehicle displaying one plate in a state or province requiring two, or one plate with either an absent or expired validation tab, is an objective measure that provides probable cause to believe a violation is occurring. Unfortunately, the license plate is grossly underutilized by law enforcement as a legitimate means to detect crime.

The 3M Traffic Safety Systems Division has recognized the crucial role that license plates play in crime detection and has partnered with the IACP Highway Safety Committee since 1998 to recognize police officers who use license plates to solve serious, nontraffic crimes. Past grand-prize winners have been responsible for the capture of one of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives, the capture of one of the U.S. Marshal’s 15 Most Wanted Fugitives in Canada, the prevention of a third homicide by an individual transporting two corpses in his vehicle’s trunk, the arrest of two suspects involved in the armed robbery and attempted first-degree murder of a Maryland restaurant manager, and the apprehension of Timothy J. McVeigh just 75 minutes after the bombing in 1995 of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The IACP Highway Safety Committee selected Senior Investigator Eliezer Roman and Investigator Charles Knapp, both of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, New York State Police, as the grand-prize winners of the 2010 Looking Beyond the License Plate award. On October 1, 2009, a motorcyclist lost control of his bike, was ejected, and was struck and killed by another vehicle that left the scene. Witnesses to the crash were able to supply only a partial license plate number and indicated that the striking vehicle was a Toyota. Investigators Roman and Knapp were assigned to investigate this fatal hit-and-run collision and searched the databases of numerous states in the vicinity of New York. Eventually, they located a Toyota registered in Maryland with the partial license plate number that witnesses had supplied.

Maryland State troopers determined that the Toyota’s owner had relocated to the area of Long Island, New York. Investigators Roman and Knapp were able to locate the owner in Nassau County, New York; the owner identified the Toyota’s driver as a 27-year-old Salvadoran national. Roman and Knapp located that individual who confessed to striking the motorcyclist and who advised that he had left the scene because he was in the United States illegally and feared being arrested and deported. The investigators charged the driver with leaving the scene of an incident without reporting—a Class D felony—and with unlicensed operation of a vehicle.

Investigators Roman and Knapp are the first dual winners of this award and will be honored at the Highway Safety Awards Breakfast held during the 117th Annual IACP Conference in Orlando, Florida, and will join other distinguished police officers who elected, during the discharge of their patrol duties, to use license plate irregularities that resulted in significant arrests.

Five other police officers were recognized by Highway Safety Committee judges in 2010 to receive honorable mentions for their initiative in solving serious crimes via this fundamental tool, which is divorced from a driver’s race, ethnicity, or sex.

  • Chief Robert H. Wunderlich, Holly Hill, South Carolina, Police Department, and other law enforcement officers responded to a bank robbery in progress; learned from witnesses that a gold Dodge with two possible license plate combinations had been involved; checked various license plate sequences; and secured a confession from the vehicle’s owner, who was charged along with five other participants.

  • Officer Michelle Verdin, Miami, Florida, Police Department, located a hanging Florida license plate—affixed with only a single bolt—on a vehicle, the trunk lock of which had been punched out, and determined that the vehicle had been stolen from a homicide victim in Raleigh, North Carolina, and contained evidence to identify a suspect.

  • Patrolman Paul Wonoski, Lynn, Massachusetts, Police Department, connected a partial license plate number to the suspect in an ongoing domestic violence situation involving a firearm. When apprehended, the suspect possessed two loaded rifles and three loaded handguns; a large quantity of cocaine and marijuana, as well as U.S. currency; and a suicide note.

  • Officer Gregg Smith, Paradise Valley, Arizona, Police Department, recorded the license plate number of a suspicious vehicle in the vicinity of an in-progress home invasion and armed robbery, subsequently determined that the registered owner of that vehicle had a history of armed robberies and burglaries, and eventually cleared six home invasions and armed robberies with the arrests of that vehicle’s owner and another individual.

  • Officer Kurt Schultz, Apple Valley, Minnesota, Police Department, cleared a bank robbery and about a dozen other robberies because the suspect’s vehicle did not display the front license plate required by Minnesota law. The suspect, who confessed to the bank robbery and other robberies, was a three-year member of the Minneapolis Police Department and was assigned to its special weapons and tactics team.

Numerous serious crimes, like those highlighted by the Looking Beyond the License Plate award program, are resolved daily by officers doing their best to safeguard those whom they have chosen to serve professionally. Hopefully, the remarkable efforts described here will inspire chiefs and officers alike to use this existing resource—license plates—in their quest to apprehend criminals and reduce crime.

Share with 3M and the IACP Highway Safety Committee those arrests based on license plates and vie to become the 2011 grand prize winner, who will be honored at the 118th Annual IACP Conference in Chicago, Illinois, October 22–26, 2011.

Applications for 3M’s 2011 Looking Beyond the License Plate award program for actions occurring between June 1, 2010, and May 31, 2011, can be completed online by accessing ■

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, "License Plates as Crime Stoppers," Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 77 (October 2010): 158, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. 77, no. 10, October 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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