In my recent article Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology not to be underestimated, I discussed the use of ANPR systems by police in Australian states and territories to identify unregistered and stolen vehicles, as well as disqualified or suspended drivers and other "persons of interest".

Abolition of rego stickers leads to influx of motorists in local courts

However, one major legislative change has made things even more complicated. In early 2013, the NSW government decided to "save money and make life easier for motorists" by abolishing registration stickers. (See Making life easier: NSW to abolish registration stickers for cars.)

Now we need to be clear here – the onus is overwhelmingly on the registered owner of every vehicle to re-register on time, sticker or not. That said, after the abolition of rego stickers, lawyers in the local courts began to see an angry parade of a full cross section of society being hauled into court for "drive unregistered registrable motor vehicle", "drive uninsured motor vehicle" etc.

Timing of ANPR updates leaves no margin for error

Many were angry that as no registration papers had turned up they had missed the date, usually by a few days and usually they had already paid the reregistration and insurance costs by the court date.

The fact is that at midnight on the last day of valid registration, if a renewal is not on the system, the computer puts the number plate on the ANPR system.

Unlicensed drivers were also finding out that they were out of renewal time by the same method. The example below is typical and occurred soon after the rego sticker changes.

Identity theft gang sentenced for stealing mail from multiple locations

At a local court which shall remain nameless, before an experienced magistrate, a number of members of an identity theft gang were in for sentencing. They were described by the police prosecutor as a central plank in the identity theft industry, albeit at the bottom of the pile.

They generated the bulk input product for the scheme – that is, they were filmed raiding letter boxes along streets, at unit blocks, and even at the rear of mail sorting locations and at post office boxes.

They did not bother taking the entire trawl away, but rapidly sorted through the envelopes for the logos of Roads and Maritime Services, Medicare, banks, or anything else that might contain a card or any other identity information.

Court overlooks non-arrival of RMS documents despite proof of mail being stolen

After the court had dealt with the members of the identity theft gang, it was time for the traffic matters, with the usual complaints about the non-arrival of RMS documents and licence renewal notifications. The irony was not lost on one defendant, who asked why the magistrate believed that the RMS posted the documents out when so many people were saying the opposite.

The reply was along the lines of policy, judicial notice etc. The defendant then asked if the magistrate could check if the crooks he had just dealt with had his licence in their possession when arrested, as the police had caught them with the goods.

The magistrate explained that it was a one-size-fits-all system and it could not be cured by him on this one occasion. Those in line behind that defendant made their feelings obvious.

Connection between stolen mail, ANPR and infringement notices

The magistrate did not mention it during sentencing, but the police later confirmed that ANPR had detected a "wanted" plate for drug offences. The vehicle was located and searched. Drugs and many ID items were inside. The driver "rolled" and confessed to police that he and some friends were being paid in drugs by an identity theft syndicate. He provided details of where and when the next "trawl" was due.

Police had cameras in place to confirm the thefts and arrest the participants. Ironically therefore, a circular system arose in that matter between stolen mail, identity theft, ANPR and the unregistered/unlicensed drivers who were hauled into court and each made to pay a hefty fine.

It is unlikely that the complaining defendant's licence was actually involved, but... in the end, Big Brother caught the crooks. He also caught out a lot of ordinary, innocent drivers who ended up offside with the "system" of government and were unhappy because even though their mail had not turned up, they had been fined and penalised.

Revenue from infringement notices for unregistered vehicles

If you're wondering what's wrong with this picture, perhaps the missing piece of the puzzle can be found by delving into the detail of recent NSW government revenue. According to data obtained under freedom of information laws, infringements for unregistered vehicles doubled between 2010 and 2015, with revenue nearly doubling to $50 million over that time. (See A fine for mother-in-law's unregistered car has led to a search for answers.)

Perhaps initially, getting rid of rego stickers was a cost-cutting measure – after all, it saved RMS a gargantuan $575,000 per annum. But as the money from all the additional fines started rolling in, it must have seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

"Rego stickers – a thing of the past"

The biggest jump in revenue occurred in the same year as rego stickers were abolished. Does anyone remember the campaign? RMS correspondence which hadn't been knocked off would turn up in your letterbox with a reassuring legend on the outside of the envelope: "Rego stickers – a thing of the past".

It had very little to do with making life easier for motorists. Perhaps, in the interest of truthfulness, the legend on the envelope should have read: "Rego stickers – a steady little earner" or simply "Rego stickers – ker-ching!"

John Gooley
Criminal law and traffic offences
Stacks Collins Thompson

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.