How to Look Up a License Plate for Free

By Jesse Strickland ; Updated June 16, 2017
License plate collection at Hole,Utah

The government has severely restricted access to several different types of DMV records, including license plate information. In response to the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, whose murderer found her address through DMV records, the government enacted the Drivers Privacy Protection Act of 1994, also known as the DPPA. You can still get hold of these records from the government, but you have to have a compelling legal reason.

Do Your Diligence

Read the Drivers Privacy Protection Act. It outlines the legal reasons acceptable for the state to release private information gleaned from license plate records. Go over the "Permissible Uses" section and make sure your reason for wanting to do the search is legally permissible.

What Is a Permissible Use?

Most of the permissible uses laid out in the law for private citizens center around a vehicle's history and maintenance. For example, if you're thinking about buying a car you might look up its records to find out whether it's affected by product recalls, and whether the corresponding repairs have been made. If you've been defrauded, you can use DMV records to help track down the offender and hopefully recover your money. You can also find out whether a vehicle meets current emissions standards. Businesses, including insurers, researchers and private investigators, have many additional permissible uses.

The Process

Record the license plate number and the vehicle identification number, if possible. The VIN may prove useful and could provide more information than the license plate. Go to your local DMV and request the records. You will need to fill out some forms, which will include certification sections that make you legally liable if you are obtaining the records under false pretenses or share the information with others who do not have permissible use.

Warning

Note the DPPA's "False Representation" section, which states the following: "It shall be unlawful for any person to make false representation to obtain any personal information from an individual's motor vehicle record."

About the Author

Jesse Strickland has been a professional writer since 2001. He has experience writing for websites, magazines, newspapers, television and schools on subjects including music, beauty and digital products. His work has appeared in "Shuffle Magazine," "Creative Loafing," "Independent Weekly" and at Neumo.net and Blogcritics.org. Strickland has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.