He displays that pride on his car, with a license plate frame that touts the school’s name.
That pride got him into a spot of trouble earlier this month, and now he’s irked at his alma mater.
On Sept. 13, Mehta was driving his Toyota 4-Runner through slow traffic on Main Street in Metuchen when he arrived at a police checkpoint.
He said he was approached by an officer, who said Mehta’s inspection sticker was not properly affixed to the car’s windshield, and the officer directed him to pull over.
Mehta said a second officer came to the car and examined the inspection sticker, saying it was crooked. Mehta said the officer said it was a ticket-worthy offense. The sticker, Mehta agrees, was “a little skewed, but anyone could see the number and color clearly,’’ he said.
“(The officer) then ripped the sticker, inspected it and put it back on the windshield. He now made it worse than before.’’
‘‘You can imagine my shock and dismay when I was issued a ticket for having the NJIT frame around my license plates,’’ Mehta said.
He said the officer explained a ticket for the inspection sticker would have been more costly, and the obstructed license plate fine was only $55.
‘‘On my way back to office I began noticing frames around license plates on vehicles in front of me,’’ Mehta said.
Most of the license plate frames he saw were no different than his NJIT frame, he said, or they covered more of the license plate his did.
CHECKPOINTS AND THE LAW
Roadside inspections like this one are common in towns across the state. In Metuchen, they’re held once or twice a month in conjunction with the Motor Vehicle Commission, said Metuchen police Capt. Rob Rentenberg.
He said officers look for equipment violations, such as broken headlights, cracked windshields and overdue inspections.
‘‘We probably average about 40 tickets each time,” Rentenberg said.
Rentenberg talked to the ticketing officer about Mehta’s stop. He said the officer reported Mehta’s sticker was hanging from a corner — Mehta disagrees — and that the officer removed the sticker to see if it was tampered with or fraudulent.
‘‘They don’t just peel off like that. That’s what caught his eye,’’ Rentenberg said, noting that his department has seen a significant increase in fraudulent inspection stickers. ‘‘When he determined it wasn’t fraudulent, he put it back it back on.’’
Is a crooked sticker a traffic violation?
There are no laws on the books about inspection stickers being straight, said MVC spokeswoman Elyse Coffey, but that damaged stickers are “an invitation to be pulled over.” Coffey said Mehta, or any motorist, can return to an inspection station with the proper paperwork and get a replacement for a damaged sticker at no charge.
The license plate frame is another matter.
There is a regulation that states you’re not allowed to have any part of the wording on your license plate covered, Coffey said.
N.J.S.A 39:3-33 reads: No person shall drive a motor vehicle which has a license plate frame or identification marker holder that conceals or otherwise obscures any part of any marking imprinted upon the vehicle’s registration plate or any part of any insert which the director, as hereinafter provided, issues to be inserted in and attached to that registration plate or marker.
Hang on. These license plate frames are everywhere. Bamboozled took an unscientific survey — a simple look around — and confirmed Mehta’s observations. The majority of license plate frames we saw covered some wording on the license plate. Not the license plate number, but “New Jersey” or “The Garden State.” All those motorists are at risk of a ticket, and they probably have no idea. And it’s a fair guess that many sellers of these frames are also unaware of the obstruction law.
Back to Mehta. He’s ready for a fight.
He’s upset about the damage he said the officer caused to his inspection sticker, and annoyed that he’ll have to go through the inconvenience of getting a new sticker so he’s not pulled over again.
But he says that’s the small stuff. Mehta says his experience is not about himself or the officer who gave him the ticket. It’s about the bigger picture.
‘‘The problem should be solved at the source, which is that they should outlaw all these plate frames from the car dealerships and colleges,’’ Mehta said. ‘‘The dealers should not be allowed to put those frames on, and Rutgers and NJIT and the rest should not be able to sell them.”
We called NJIT to see if it was aware that it could be setting its alumni up for traffic stops. It said it had no idea the frames were a problem.
“We will no longer sell that frame at our bookstore,’’ said NJIT Dean of Students Jack Gentul. “In fact, we have removed the frames from our store and are getting a new styled frame that meets the specifications.’’
Gentul said when they come in, they’ll send one to Mehta with the school’s apologies.
Mehta said he appreciates what the school is doing, and he’s looking forward to receiving the frame. But for this alum, the story isn’t over.
Mehta is due in court on Oct. 13 to fight the ticket. He doesn’t expect to beat the fine, but he said a court appearance will bring attention to what he says is a wrong.
We’ll let you know what happens in court, and we’ll also follow up with the manufacturer of these plate frames to see if it is aware of the law.
ONE MORE NOTE
My vehicle’s front license plate is also partially covered. Not by a license plate frame, but by an externally mounted E-ZPass. (Mine is one of the vehicles whose windshield has metal oxide in the glass, so an interior-mounted E-ZPass tag can’t be read through the glass.) Of the 3.75 million active tags in the New Jersey E-ZPass program, approximately 405,000 are externally mounted, according to figures provided by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
Have I, and these other 405,000 or so E-ZPass customers been breaking the law, too?
Nope. Turns out there are certain exceptions to the license plate obstruction law, MVC’s Coffey said, externally mounted E-ZPasses being one of them.
But as I read on the E-ZPass website the list of vehicles that require externally mounted tags, I realized I’m not off the hook yet. My vehicle is not on the list. I’ve had my E-ZPass for more than a decade, and I’ve transferred it from vehicle to vehicle. My old vehicle is on the list, but my current one is not.
Guess I need to call E-ZPass for a replacement internal tag lest I receive a ticket for an obstructed license plate on an unauthorized vehicle if I’m ever pulled over.