California lawmakers hope new license plate law will help fight crime

Catching criminals could become easier under a new license plate law signed by Governor Jerry Brown Monday.

California law enforcement officers say currently, investigators have hit road blocks in solving cases because some vehicles involved in crimes have no license plate for officers to track.

2 Investigates did a series of reports starting in 2013 on the problems caused by California's policy of allowing newly-purchased vehicles to go on the roads for up to 90 days without any license plate number. The reports caught the attention of Assembly Speaker pro Tempore Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo) who worked for three years to pass a bill that would require temporary numbered plates on all vehicles before they leave a dealer lot.

"This will create for the first time in the state of California a temporary license plate program," Mullin said.

The new law is being met with enthusiasm by police officers who hope it will prevent criminals from getting away. Former Walnut Creek police officer Steve Rohwer, an early advocate for temporary plates who shared his concerns and frustrations in 2013 with KTVU and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission staff, was pleased to hear about the bill becoming law.

Walnut Creek police Lt. Tom Cashion says it is needed. Just one week before the governor signed the bill, police had a case of several purse-snatchings that occurred downtown. The suspects, who have not been caught, targeted three women, injuring one of them.

"She had a purse over her shoulder and the suspect came up grabbed the purse off of her and caused her to fall down," said Lt. Cashion.

Lt. Cashion says even though witnesses and surveillance cameras saw the suspects leave in a light-colored Jeep Patriot, officers could not trace the SUV.

"The vehicle did drive by the camera and if we had a license plate, we would have had a lead," Lt. Cashion said.

But like millions of new vehicles on California roads every year, the SUV had no license plate.

That was the same problem in a fatal hit-and-run that killed Michael Bonanomi on August 17, 2013 in Southern California. His best friend Matt Panagiotis said Bonanomi was killed in Studio City by a car going at least 60 miles an hour on Ventura Boulevard.

"Came around the corner and hit him and dragged him at least 100 yards down the street and then never stopped," said Panagiotis

Seven witnesses saw Bonanomi being hit by the rare Mercedes with black wheels, but the vehicle and driver have not been found.

"It was a very unique expensive car and even then, the difference was it just didn't have a license plate," said Panagiotis.

Panagiotis was among those who testified in Sacramento in 2014 in favor of Assembly member Mullin's bill requiring newly purchased cars to have a temporary numbered license plate. The bill met with opposition that year from the DMV and new car dealers who were concerned about costs and how it would be implemented. Mullin made some changes and returned in 2015 with AB516 which passed the legislature.

"This bill will not bring Michael back, but it will give law enforcement a tool going forward to address those kinds of situations," Panagiotis said.

The new law will require dealers to place a temporary numbered plate on every car they sell starting in 2019. It is expected to generate an estimated $19 million a year in currently uncollected toll funds.

To cover the cost of the program, car dealers will be able to charge consumers up to five dollars, about the same cost as the toll for one bridge crossing.

The new law comes as a relief for friends and family of Michael Bonanomi, who hope it will help others get the answers they still don't have.

"It was bittersweet joy. It doesn't bring Michael back, but maybe his death in a little small way has contributed to a significant change in California law," Panagiotis said.