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Toss Your ‘Ghost Car’ Complaints Into the 311 Abyss, Says Deputy Mayor Banks

6:21 PM EDT on April 14, 2023

Call 311 on phony plates, said for Public Safety Phil Banks on April 14. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

New Yorkers should report drivers with defaced or phony license plates to the city's 311 system, Mayor Adams's top public safety official said Friday — despite the NYPD's poor rate of responding to those complaints.

Law enforcement will use the data from the non-emergency complaint line to zero in on so-called "ghost cars," Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Phil Banks said Friday, after Streetsblog exposed lax regulations in other states that have enabled a boom in plate fraud.

"There is no legitimate, above-board reason to remove a plate or obscure your license plates — none, none that I'm aware of," Banks said during his weekly safety briefing at the Tweed Courthouse.

"If you’re walking through your regular day you see somebody with a ghost car, send a text to 311 ... We use this data to be able to direct the resources there, because you're paying for your toll, they're not paying for their toll."

Banks also railed against drivers dodging tolls and speed and red light cameras, saying they evade the automated enforcement devices that make the city safer, while striking a sympathetic tone for drivers by noting that he "personally" finds the cameras frustrating.

"I personally don't like [enforcement cameras], but guess what happens? That just shows that they are effective," he said. "People are alive because of because of these red light cameras and the speeding summonses."

Banks made no mention of 311's shoddy track record in generating enforcement — or the fact that the hotline has been used by cops to harass complainants. Complaints to 311 rarely lead to NYPD enforcement — police issue tickets in response to less than 2 percent of blocked bike lane complaints, for example.

In the case of paper plates, New Yorkers have filed 10,268 complaints since last July, but cops have only issued 1,001 summonses as a result, according an online tracker of 311 data.

The highest rate of ticketing is just 36 percent in Harlem's 26th Precinct, while five precincts have logged zero summonses despite receiving a combined 164 complaints.

New Yorkers who take up Banks' recommendation to call 311 also run the risk of becoming victims of NYPD harassment, as was the case for several people who spoke to Streetsblog back in 2021. The city Department of Investigations corroborated Streetsblog's reporting last month.

One Brooklynite who received threats from cops against his life after filing a 311 complaint remained skeptical Banks' new commitment to enforcement would make a dent in the abuse of fraudulent plates.

"I’ve made many 311 complaints about defaced plates, covered plates, paper plates, and I can’t think of a time when one of those generated a summons," said Tony Melone.

"In Brooklyn at least, the NYPD has shown no interest in doing anything about it."

Melone's local 78th Precinct in Park Slope — infamous for arresting lawyer Adam White for removing an illegal plate cover late last year — only issued summonses for 8 percent of 124 complaints, according to city data.

Cops have told Melone they can't issue tickets unless they see the vehicles with fraudulent plates in motion.

"I don’t know where they’re getting that interpretation of the law but it basically makes it impossible to enforce,” he said, noting cops are unlikely to stake out each defaced vehicle until its driver starts moving again.

NYPD has towed more than 1,700 so-called ghost cars this year, including a sting in Brooklyn on Wednesday in which cops booted 26 vehicles, a department rep told Streetsblog on Thursday.

The Sheriff's Office seized 162 cars in the first three months of this year, up from 101 the same time last year, New York City Sheriff Anthony Miranda said during Friday's briefing.

The issue goes well beyond individual drivers skirting the law.

Streetsblog's bombshell investigation last week revealed New Yorkers exploiting loose regulations in states like New Jersey and Georgia to open car dealerships and sell tens of thousands of temporary license plates.

Banks declined to take a question submitted by Streetsblog ahead of the briefing. City Hall did not immediately respond for comment.

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