Walt from Denver writes, “A couple of people that have moved to Colorado have told me they know a “loophole” in the law. They stated that they cannot be ticketed for not registering their vehicles in Colorado if the out of state license plate “year” sticker is not displayed. I have noticed dozens of out of state license plates without expiration stickers in parking lots. In fact, in the downtown parking garage I frequent, I have noticed for over three years the same vehicles with non-Colorado license plates (without the year expiration sticker). Is the “loophole” a legitimate way to avoid having to pay Colorado vehicle licensing/registration fees or are non-Colorado licensed vehicles not being ticketed and given a free pass?”
The answer comes down to this, Walt. Can someone drive on Colorado roads with an expired out of state plate for a long time and seemingly get away with it? Yes. Is this a “legitimate loophole” to avoid paying vehicle registration fees in Colorado or their home state? No.
Colorado law states, after becoming a Colorado resident, you must transfer your driver license within 30 days and register your vehicle within 90 days. Vehicle registration is completed in the county you reside. According to the Colo Department of Revenue, a person is considered a Colorado resident if, “Colorado is the person’s state of domicile or the person qualifies as a “statutory” resident. When evaluating whether a person’s state of domicile is Colorado, the Department of Revenue will consider, among other factors, Colorado voter registration, Colorado vehicle registration, Colorado driver’s license, school registration, property ownership, and residence of spouse and children. A person is a “statutory” resident of Colorado if the person maintains a permanent place of abode in Colorado and spends, in aggregate, more than six months of the tax year in Colorado.”
Colorado residency can also be established if a person owns or operates a business in Colorado, is gainfully employed in Colorado or resides in Colorado for 90 consecutive days. Once someone becomes a resident of Colorado, they have 90 days to obtain valid Colorado Registration.
“For law enforcement, it comes down to stopping the vehicle and figuring out if the person is a resident, when they became a resident, and if they are in violation at that point,” says Josh Lewis with the Colorado State Patrol. “Obviously, just having a plate from out of state is not probable cause for us to stop a vehicle and check how long they have been a resident.”
Lewis says since not all states require a year tab to be shown on their plate, that can hinder knowing if it's expired just by looking. However, if a driver is stopped for any other reason, troopers will check the registration status of the plates. If the plate comes back as expired in the home state, the driver can be charged for driving with expired plates or not having valid registration.
“Even if they do not have to switch their plates over, for example, military or out of state college students, they still have to have a current, valid registration to drive here. If they fall under one of those exemptions, they have to make sure their plates are valid through their home state,” Lewis says.
You can't always assume that someone who is living and working in Colorado and is driving a vehicle with out of state plates is breaking the law. Even if a person qualifies under the law to be eligible as a resident of Colorado, they might still claim residency in another state. In cases like that, the vehicle owner is required to keep their vehicle registration up to date in their home state. The only way to know if that is the case is by asking the owner of the vehicle or if pulled over by law enforcement.
You also can't assume that a plate on a vehicle without a year sticker has an expired registration. In a state like Texas, the license plate validation is not a sticker on the license plate like it is in Colorado. Texas issues a decal that is supposed to be displayed on the inside of the windshield. New York and the District of Columbia also use windshield stickers rather than stickers on license plates. New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania don’t require any validation stickers. Not on the plate or on the windshield. Connecticut hasn’t required validation stickers of any kind for the past 10 years. The state DMV there says, “There is no longer any visual proof of registration; only the registration certificate carried in the vehicle. Police check all plates for validity solely by means of computer in this cost cutting change.”
Let’s say, for arguments sake, a person from Pennsylvania moves to Colorado, doesn’t claim residency in Pennsylvania anymore and can legally be considered a Colorado resident. When that person doesn’t register their vehicle with the Colorado DMV after 90 days, that person is breaking the law. Then, if that same driver lets the Pennsylvania registration expire and still drives in Colorado, that driver is again breaking the law. If that driver eventually decides to register the vehicle in Colorado, Kyle Boyd with the Colorado Department of Revenue tells me, “When a vehicle is registered outside of that time period above, prior Specific Ownership Taxes (SOT) will be collected. SOT is based on the year of manufacture of the vehicle and the original taxable value, which is determined when the vehicle is new. That does not change throughout the life of the vehicle.”
You can see why someone from Pennsylvania might try do skip registering their vehicle in Colorado. The registration in Pennsylvania is a flat fee for passenger cars of only $36.00. In Texas, the flat fee to register a car or lighter pickup truck is just $50.75. In New Jersey, the most expensive registration fee tops out at $84.00 for a passenger car or commuter van. You can see what some of the other base fees are for vehicle registration in other states from the National Conference of State Legislators page.
Even though the above scenario is frustrating to us who abide by the law and pay the hundreds or even thousands of dollars in Colorado vehicle registration fees, there will still be people who break the law as a way to save money. Douglas county allows you to report suspected out-of-state plates or expired temporary tags to their motor vehicle department. They forward any responses they receive to the law enforcement jurisdiction in which the vehicle is located.
If you would like some more general information about license plates, the lndex of U.S. License Plate Pages has images and history of license plates in each state and how they have changed over the years.
Denver7 traffic anchor Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 20 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on iTunes , Stitcher , Google Play or Podbean.