Front license plates still needed in Ohio, police tell lawmakers 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by "Mister Upstate."

Sgt. Richard Forney has a clear reason why he believes Ohio should require two license plates on vehicles: the presence of the front plate helped his department solve the 2017 murder of Reagan Tokes.

The Grove City Police Department sergeant was involved in the Tokes murder investigation. Shortly after Tokes’ body was found dead in a local park, police were able to locate her car thanks to license plate recognition technology. Officials located evidence inside the car that led them to the killer, who had unsuccessfully attempted to destroy the car before police could find it. A year later, the man was tried and convicted. 

The front license plate is a “proven and effective tool” for police investigative work, Forney told legislators on Wednesday. He said removing the plate would be doing Ohioans “a disservice.”

Ohio is among 32 states that require both a front and back license plate, but may not be for long. A transportation budget bill approved by legislators and signed by Gov. Mike DeWine earlier this year included language revoking the two-plate requirement, effective July 2020. 

A proposed bill by state Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, and former state Sen. Joe Uecker, R-Miami Twp., would cancel that change and keep Ohio as a two-plate state. 

Various law enforcement agencies support the two-plate requirement and are urging passage of Senate Bill 179 ahead of next summer’s change. 

Critics say front plates affect a car’s aesthetics and technology, and that other states — including all of those surrounding Ohio — carry on just fine without this requirement. 

Speaking at a Transportation, Commerce and Workforce Committee hearing on SB 179, state Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, said the discussion felt like “deja vu.” She pointed out that legislators had recently debated this issue during the transportation budget process. Couldn’t Ohio simply let the mandate expire, Roegner asked, and later consider re-instituting it if the need arose?

Hottinger contends the language was inserted quietly, and there was little attention given to the matter until after the budget was already passed. The Republican said he was once ambivalent about the issue, but became an “ardent supporter” of the requirement after listening to data provided by Heather Whitton, who leads the License Plate Recognition Program for the Cincinnati Police Department. 

Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark

The evidence is irrefutable and makes this a “black and white issue” worth advocating for, Hottinger said.

A number of other law enforcement officials testified in favor of keeping the front plates on Wednesday. This included Sheriff George Maier of Stark County, who is also a member of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association board of directors. He pointed to several other examples of crimes solved thanks in part to the existence of a front plate.

In one case, a man shot and killed his wife before driving away from town. Maier said the plate information was given out statewide and was later tracked down by a patrolman 65 miles away. 

Chief Darin Powers of the Streetsboro Police Department in between Cleveland and Akron said this bill is a matter of priorities. Safety, he said, should outweigh “vanity and convenience.”

Jeff Vrabel Sr. offered a unique perspective as a past president of the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation. He told legislators that school bus drivers are trained to watch out for other drivers who do not follow bus safety laws. In certain cases, the driver will describe the vehicle out loud to be heard (and potentially later reviewed) by the on-board recording system. One of the descriptors is the front license plate. 

Under current state law (and in Hottinger’s proposal), the failure to display a front license plate is a minor misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $100. It is a “secondary offense,” meaning officers can cite a driver only if they first determine that another violation has occurred. 

The Legislative Budget Office has estimated the removal of the front plate will save the Bureau of Motor Vehicle well over $1 million per year in plate production and distribution costs.

Also, small governments around the state would lose between $120,000-240,000 per year in total citation revenue, the office estimated

In his sponsor testimony, Hottinger said the bill is not about the money, but solely about public safety.

Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.