Got a frame around your license plate? State law says it's illegal

Designed to show school spirit, advertise a car dealership or urge other motorists to have a nice day, license plate frames have become a mobile form of self-expression -- expression that could come at a hefty price for South Carolina drivers.

State law prohibits motorists from displaying any type of "tag, sign, monogram, tinted cover, or inscription of metal or other material ... above, around, or upon the plate" other than those issued by the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. That makes the license plate frames technically illegal.

Drivers can be fined $237.50, according to the city of Beaufort's municipal court. Drivers can have the fee waived if they demonstrate that they've removed the frame, according to a court spokeswoman.

Despite the prohibition, license plate frames have become ubiquitous on area roads.

"Everyone and their mom has one," said Rhonda Washington of Beaufort, as she gassed up recently at the Enmark on Parris Island Gateway. "I get that you don't want to have people trying to hide their license plate numbers from police, but come on. It seems a little silly to fine someone for something like that."

Washington's South Carolina plate on the back of her white Cadillac Eldorado was fastened inside a South Carolina State alumni license plate frame.

Area law enforcement agencies -- including the S.C. Highway Patrol -- said their officers do not generally issue tickets for license plate frames.

"I don't know of any citations written for just a frame unless it hinders us from reading it," said Capt. Alan Beach of the Port Royal Police Department. "We have written a few for tinted covers being over them."

In Bluffton, it's left to the officer's discretion, said Lt. Bryan Norberg.

"It depends how obscured the plate is," he said.

Tickets for the offense aren't very common. Most people are given warnings if they are pulled over, Norberg said.

Sometimes officers use the law or another requiring tag lights as probable cause to stop suspicious vehicles, he said.

"If someone's driving around late at night, we can pull them over and ask what they're up to," Norberg said.

The law was originally enacted in 1949, but has been amended several times, according to the S.C. Legislative Council in Columbia.

Island Packet reporter Daniel Brownstein contributed to this report.