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Out-of-date tags: 23 percent of California drivers register late

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - Of the millions of vehicles on California's roads, nearly a quarter of them get registered late.

Eyewitness News found a sampling of local cars and trucks with late tags and discovered it will cost those drivers more -- in ways they may not realize.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles tells us for the 2013-'14 year, 95 percent of the vehicles in the state were renewed. That's some 31 million cars and trucks. The DMV says 77 percent renewed on time, but that leaves some 23 percent paying up late.

A sharp-eyed local viewer had complained about seeing so many cars with outdated tags on their license plates, and he worries about the loss of funds to the state.

"Every year, the state loses millions of dollars of revenue because people choose not to register their vehicle on time," local CHP officer Robert Rodriguez said. But, he says those drivers run the risk of getting ticketed for it.

"As a matter of fact, this morning I personally wrote a citation for somebody," Rodriguez said. "They were committing a moving violation, but once you stop them, you determine that their registration is expired -- and I issued her a citation for that."

A look at a the rear license plate shows which month registration is due, and what year it's good for. But DMV officials say that's often not the whole story.

DMV spokesman Jaime Garza says what looks like an expired license plate tag could mean the driver's paid the registration, but they still have to provide proof of insurance. Or a driver could have paid for registration, but they haven't finished "smogging" the vehicle. In those cases, they don't have the new sticker yet for the rear license plate.

Eyewitness News found a driver in that situation parked at a local shopping center. With tags that looked about five months behind, the driver said he was still in the process of getting the smog check in order.

Another driver said he was in the same predicament, and as a student he was struggling to pay for the repairs and smog certificate.

"I take responsibility for allowing it to get like that," he said -- asking not to be identified. His car's registration was due in January.

Eyewitness News made a spot check on Oct. 1 in parking lots in three different parts of Bakersfield.

We saw many tags with October as their renewal month, and still with the 2015 stickers, while they should have the new 2016 sticker by that point.

We spotted a number of vehicles that were several months past due. And we also found some that still had stickers from 2014.

Some drivers said they had the right sticker, but hadn't put it on yet. One driver said she was about to sell her car. Another family said they'd just bought their car, and didn't have the correct sticker yet from the dealer.

To get the sticker, you have to pay up -- and that registration cost will vary. The basic fees are $46 for the DMV and $24 for the CHP. Then there's a "vehicle license fee," which is based on a formula that starts with the purchase price of the vehicle. The DMV says vehicle license fee goes down with each renewal for the first 11 fees.

Registration also includes a smog abatement fee, and a county fee -- collected on behalf of local jurisdictions.

Where does the money go? The DMV says local governments get 40.7 percent, the CHP gets 25.7 percent, and 13.9 percent goes to the DMV. State highways, Caltrans, also gets 13 percent.

And then the Air Resources Board gets 1.7 percent, other state agencies receive 4.3 percent of the renewal fees, and 0.7 percent goes to the State General Fund.

If a driver has a personalized license plate, the fees for that will vary.

The DMV wouldn't say how much comes in from vehicle registration fees, saying there are so many variables. Their data shows in the year 2013-'14, some 5 percent of vehicles did not renew at all. The DMV spokesman says that could be due to drivers registering them as "planned non-operational," drivers taking the cars out of state, or vehicles wrecked in crashes -- and no longer being driven at all.

Some who didn't renew may also still be driving on expired registration. For drivers who pay their registration late, they will pay more.

"You'll end up paying late fees and penalties, and that adds up very quickly," DMV spokesman Jaime Garza said. He adds it's the driver's responsibility to pay registration renewal, and they get a notice 60 days before it's due. Drivers also get a notice of delinquent registration 30 days after it's due.

The DMV says drivers might miss those notices if they've moved. The department says vehicle owners can get information on vehicle registrations by calling (800) 777-0133. That'll have information on what fees are due, what documents are required, and payment options.

But, that still leaves a lot of vehicles with out-of-date registration.

"It happens all the time," Bakersfield Police Sgt. Joe Grubbs agrees." Catching those drivers would be up to law enforcement officers, but Grubbs says they can only do so much. "We have a finite number of resources," Grubbs said. "And speaking honestly, that's not high on our priority list."

At the CHP, officer Robert Rodriguez says their officers also prioritize their efforts.

"Our job is to go out there and save lives," he said. "Whenever an officer does encounter a situation where someone's tags are expired -- registration is expired -- we do take enforcement action."

And, there is a program where citizens can report out-of-date registration.

"They can contact our office and file a traffic complaint," Rodriguez said. "These vehicles actually have to be out on the street in order for law enforcement to actually contact these people," he added -- not on a driveway or in a parking lot.

The CHP also has a special Cheaters Program, but that's primarily to report people driving with out-of-state license plates.

But, when California drivers stall on paying up for their registration renewal, they risk even more than expensive fees and penalties.

"If someone does not register their vehicle, and it's over six months expired, then at that point, we're going to go ahead and impound that car until those fees are paid," Officer Rodriguez said.

He says officers can -- and will -- impound and issue a ticket for out-of-date registration.

"They may get away with it for a certain amount of time," Rodriguez said. "But, there will come a time where we'll eventually come across you, and we'll impound your car, and we'll keep your car until you pay your registration fees."

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