Do Cops Know If a Car Has Insurance?

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Written by
Feature Insurance Writer
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Reviewed by
Farmers CSR for 4 Years
UPDATED: 2022-08-03T08:53:29.325Z
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Car insurance is as necessary as a driver’s license, and similarly, it’s something cops will always check for. So, how do cops check for insurance? While you need to carry proof of insurance with you, most cops can also scan your license plate to receive up-to-the-minute information about your insurance status.

To that end, yes — cops do know if a car has valid insurance. In fact, with the combination of either license plate recognition devices or on-car computers - plus access to insurance databases - cops or law enforcement can find out your insurance status before even seeing your face.

Keep reading to learn more about how cops use these various methods for checking insurance status, as well as what happens when you don’t have up-to-date insurance coverage.

If you're concerned about saving on car insurance, the best way to ensure you're not overpaying is to compare multiple quotes. Our free search tool can help you compare quotes from different companies.

How Do Cops Receive Insurance Information About Your Car?

Most states now have electronic insurance verification systems to keep track of insurance status by license plate number. This means police can simply run your license plate through a computer system in their cars to verify your insurance.

These systems allow police to quickly identify if:

  • You’re driving without insurance
  • Your insurance policy is expired
  • You’re carrying an accurate, up-to-date insurance card (after matching it to their electronic results)

Because insurance companies communicate with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) when your insurance status changes, and to share data at regular intervals, the information police have access to with electronic verification systems will always be the most up-to-date.

How Does License Plate Scanning Work?

Both manual entry scanning and constant camera scanning may be used by police, depending on where you’re traveling. Manual entry systems require police to enter the digits of your license plate into an on-car computer, while constant camera scanning systems automatically capture license plate information, as well as the location, time, and date of the scan.

These types of automated license plate readers, also known as ALPRs, are cameras that can be:

  • Mounted on police squad cars
  • Fixed at certain locations, such as on road signs or bridges
  • Attached to movable objects, such as surveillance vans
  • Used as mobile devices, such as ones used by on-street cops

While this technology is the center of the debate, ALPR devices have nevertheless helped police identify and penalize uninsured motorists.

Is Information Always Accurate When Cops Scan a License Plate?

ALPR technology has been around for decades. Similar to other advanced technology, such as cell phones, ALPRs started off producing somewhat dicey results. However, as technology has improved, these scanners have become more powerful and accurate.

According to WIRED, ALPR devices are estimated to read license plates correctly about 97% of the time.

When Do Cops Check for Car Insurance?

Police use electronic verification systems to check on your insurance status in real time, usually before or during a traffic stop. While you may think driving carefully will be enough to avoid a traffic stop, it’s possible for police to perform a routine scan of your plate while you’re driving, detect an issue with your insurance, and target you for a traffic violation.

Here are some ways license scanning can cause you to be cited for driving without insurance:

  • Secondary violation – Driving while being an uninsured motorist is a secondary violation, meaning it will only be an issue after you’re pulled over for speeding or another violation. In Michigan, for example, police are prohibited from pulling someone over solely for an insurance offense, even if the plates are scanned and displayed as uninsured.
  • Repeat offenders – Some states have initiated programs to scan the license plates of drivers previously cited for driving without insurance.
  • Insurance checkpoints – On occasion, you may be stopped at a roadside checkpoint designed to identify uninsured motorists. A popular road in Tulsa, for example, became the site of an insurance checkpoint one Saturday night. Every driver passing through was scanned for insurance. Cars without motor vehicle insurance were immediately towed, and drivers who weren’t carrying proof of insurance were ticketed with a $250 fine.

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Why Carry Proof of Auto Insurance If Police Can Scan Your License Plate?

Although police can determine your car insurance status by scanning your license plate, you’re still legally required to carry your insurance information to show proof when asked. In fact, many states impose penalties for driving without proof of insurance.

This is because technology may not always be available to confirm your insurance information. If the software is down, or if you’re stopped in a part of the country that hasn’t adopted electronic scanning, a paper copy of your car insurance serves as a backup.

It’s also legal to carry digital proof of your car insurance by taking a photo of your insurance card. But again, carrying a paper copy is always a smart idea in case your phone is lost, stolen, or dead. Claiming “It’s on my phone, but the battery ran out,” might sound too much like “a dog ate my homework,” when a cop asks for proof of insurance.

An officer may also request physical proof of insurance to verify that you’re providing accurate information to them. Remember, complying with the law about car insurance includes:

  • Having it
  • Carrying proof of it
  • Being truthful about it

Can cops tell if you provide false insurance information?

It used to be fairly easy for drivers to create false insurance cards. Even now, you can find internet scams offering fake proof of insurance cards or suggesting you send such documents to courts in response to ticketing.

However, most police now have electronic access to insurance records that make fake cards a thing of the past. With electronic verification systems, police can see your insurance status as soon as they scan your license plate. That means they’ll know if your proof of insurance is fake.

In addition to learning whether a driver has provided them with false information, police can also use this technology to identify drivers who’ve purchased policies from fake insurance providers.

What happens if you give fake insurance information to the police?

Giving false information to a police officer is a serious offense. In fact, lying about your car insurance can lead to:

  • Fines of up to $2,000
  • Jail time of up to 6 months
  • Compulsory non-cancelable car insurance

What happens if the police discover you’re driving without insurance?

Unless you live in New Hampshire — the only state that allows drivers to be uninsured if they can prove they’re wealthy enough to pay for damages out of pocket — you cannot legally drive in the United States without liability auto insurance.

Even for a first offense, the penalties for driving without car insurance can put you at risk of:

  • Jail time of up to 5 years
  • Fines of up to $1,500
  • A suspended driver license for up to 3 years
  • A suspended vehicle registration for up to 3 years
  • Fees to reinstate your driver license and registration

How License Plate Scanning Changes Insurance Priorities

Considering that the police can scan your license plate any time your car is out of your driveway, it makes sense to avoid driving without car insurance or providing false insurance information.

With the potential for out-of-pocket fines, plus lost income and lawyer fees, driving without insurance stacks up to significantly higher costs than simply purchasing the required car insurance.

How License Plate Insurance Detection Helps Drivers

State-imposed car insurance requirements aren’t in place to drain your bank account or put you in an orange jumpsuit.

In fact, car insurance requirements are designed to provide you and your fellow drivers with financial assistance in the event of an accident. With plate scanning systems, cops can ensure all drivers are covered, which can help you save both time and money.

With electronic insurance detection, police can:

  • Get you back on the road more quickly – Because officers can access your insurance information before they approach your car, they spend less time reviewing and confirming your insurance status during a traffic stop.
  • Ensure fewer risky drivers – A recent study showed that uninsured drivers exhibit riskier behavior and are about 36% more likely to cause an accident than an insured driver.
  • Drive down your insurance rates – The number of uninsured drivers in your location is a factor that can drive up your own insurance costs, so efforts to detect and decrease non-compliance are in your best interest.

Need to Update Your Auto Insurance Before You Hit the Road?

Technology is making it easy for cops to detect your car insurance status even before they pull you over or ask for your insurance card. That’s why now, more than ever, making sure you’re covered before you hit the road is essential to saving you time and money.

Whether you’re shopping for car insurance for the first time or want to compare your current rates, We’re here to help. In fact, you can save $500 or more on your annual rates by comparing with our free insurance quote comparison tool.



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