Police: Tolls could explain why license plate thefts are up in Portsmouth, Suffolk

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — There have been 330 license plates stolen in Portsmouth this year, according to crime statistics.

That’s an average of more than two plates taken each day since January. If the trend continues, Portsmouth will have 828 stolen plates by the end of the year.

In 2016, police reported 328 stolen license plates.

Last year in Suffolk, police say there were 79 plates stolen. There’s already been 70 this year.

“This last month, it’s been more spread all over the city,” said Police Chief Tonya Chapman. “Our suspicion is they may be using them to avoid tolls or people are reporting them to try and avoid toll bills.”

Chapman says some people are reporting their plates stolen months after they say they went missing. The chief says it’s possible drivers are trying to avoid paying high toll bills.

The thefts have been increasing in Portsmouth since 2014, but Chapman says they leveled off until February, when they saw 53 thefts in one month. There were 98 license plates stolen in March and another 87 in April. There’s been 60 thefts reported to police so far this month.

“We believe because so much attention has been brought to the tolling issue,” said Chapman. “The governor started making announcements and it came to the forefront and bills started going out.”

In Norfolk, police say there were at least 231 plates taken from cars in 2016. The department is trending 11 percent higher for 2017.

“It inconveniences individuals when their license plate is stolen and they have to go to DMV and they have to pay additional fees,” said Chapman.

Police encourage victims to file a police report and get new plates with new numbers.

The Suffolk Police Department advises all drivers to better protect themselves by purchasing secure bolts and a license plate frame that locks.

Police in Newport News and Hampton do not believe their plates are being stolen for the purposes of avoiding tolls, but rather for suspects to go undetected when committing other crimes.

In 2016, police in Hampton took 219 reports for stolen license plates. There’s been 96 thefts this year, according to Sgt. Matt Bond.

“License plates are typically stolen so that others can avoid detection when committing another crime, their plates have expired and cannot be renewed (suspended or revoked driver), or to place on a stolen vehicle so that the plate when ran by law enforcement does not return to a vehicle that has been previously reported as stolen to a law enforcement agency.”

Chapman says the Portsmouth Police Department has been working with the Jordan Bridge to cross examine the stolen plates with those drivers who cross the bridge.

The chief says Elizabeth River Crossings, the company that operates the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels, have not been helpful with their investigations.

10 On Your Side reached out to ERC on Wednesday and CEO Philip Shucet said over the phone he was unaware the police were trying access their database. Shucet took over ERC in March and says records have not been requested since he started, but he is willing to help.

“We will absolutely cooperate with any investigation in the extent that the law allows to share the information,” said Shucet. “I can assure you we will cooperate.”