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Don’t Cry about “Old Yeller”

Photo of Stephen E. Palmer

Imagine this conversation:
“Mommy, why does Daddy’s car have a different license plate?”
“Well. Daddy’s car is special.”
“But Why?”
“Because the courts in Ohio say so.”

They are, of course, talking about the yellow plate requirement. Most of us in Ohio have heard something about this unthinkable horror. It’s one of the most common questions we get. Everyone wants to know if they are going to have to get yellow plates. We answer that question in the same wishy-washy way lawyers answer most questions—we tell them that it all depends.

The rules can be complicated. But there are a few general principles. At the outset, understand that the yellow plate requirement is tied to driving privileges. This means that courts can only force yellow plates if a person wants limited driving privileges while their license is suspended. So, if a person falls under the yellow plate mandates, they can always opt not to ask for privileges.

The next issue is figuring out who gets the yellow plates. The rules have changed a few times over the years. For years, the yellow plate provision was written in the law, but it gave courts discretion to decide when to require yellow plates. Few courts ever required the yellow plates.

Things then changed. For a while, everyone had to have yellow plates, even on a basic first offense OVI. This caused a huge backlash of problems. The system really wasn’t ready for this, and no one knew how to cut through the red tape to actually get the plates from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Then the law makers realized that their friends, family, and loved ones were often facing the yellow plate stigma. Rumors about a looming change in the were rampant. The lawyers continued all their cases as long as possible, hoping for a change. The rumors became reality, and the law changed.

That pretty much leaves us with what we have today. Here are the basics.

A run-of-the-mill first offense OVI does not require yellow plates. The only time yellow plates are mandatory is where the person is convicted of a “high” breath test (.17 and above).
A second, third, fourth, or felony offense conviction (within 6 years under the Ohio Revised Code) requires yellow plates.
The court has discretion to require yellow plates, even on a basic, low-test first offense.
If the offense is drug-related (not alcohol related), plates are generally not mandatory. But courts have the option.
The yellow plate requirement follows the driver, not the car. A person cannot get avoid the plates by driving someone else’s car. Any car they drive must have the plates.

There are subtle nuances that are too complicated to explain here. For instance, there are particular issues that come up when someone drives a corporate car. But these are the basics.

We recently spoke to a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who was writing a story on the yellow plate requirements. Ohio was one of the first to have such a law, but other states are following suit.

They have been called “party plates,” “whiskey plates,” and all sorts of other names. We have had people surround their license plate with an Arizona or Pennsylvania plate frame, making it look less conspicuous. But in the end, its best to avoid “Old Yeller.” And there are ways to do it. This is yet another good reason not to handle an OVI alone, without an experienced Columbus OVI attorney.

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