Can I Run a License Plate Number for Free?

License Plate
Getty Images/Zave Smith

Did you witness a terrible driver doing something illegal or annoying? Are you trying to get some background information on someone dating your son, daughter, or former spouse? There are lots of reasons that trigger the idea of running someone's license plate number to get more information on a person, but can you run a license plate for free?

Unfortunately, running a driver's license plate number for any reason or purpose is not only impossible to do for free – it is illegal.

Do not do it. Even if you do come across some website offering to run plate numbers, it is most likely a rip-off — and for the law enforcement authorities, it may be a tip-off. Don’t pay for the service and don’t enter any of your personal information on the website; it’s just not worth the risk.

If you do witness a driver doing something illegal, write down the plate number and call the police via the non-emergency number (unless, of course, it is an emergency). Only law enforcement officers can run license plate numbers, and they have the tools to do so quickly and easily.

Remember to use some discretion with this method. You probably do not want to call law enforcement because someone forgot to turn on their blinker, but if you witnessed a serious crime, you should report it. And of course, if someone hit your vehicle or something else and then drove away, that qualifies as a severe crime. Likewise, if you witnessed a crime such as a robbery or assault take place and then managed to take down the license number of the getaway car.

What Info Will A Police Officer See When Running License Plate Numbers?

In many large cities, police cruisers are set up with high tech cameras that can scan hundreds of plates a minute. In smaller towns and precincts, some police officers cannot run a license plate from their patrol car and must call the number into a dispatcher for processing. So what information is available to a police officer when they run a license plate number? All data associated with a license plate number only applies to the person the vehicle is registered to, but they can find out:

  • The Name of the Vehicle Owner
  • The Address of the Vehicle Owner
  • Whether or not the Plate was registered as Stolen
  • Whether the Vehicle is Listed as Stolen
  • If the Plate Matches the Vehicle it is on
  • In Some States, Police Can Check for Valid Car Insurance

Of course, none of this information will be available to you, but it will be available to law enforcement as they decide whether or not to issue a citation or, in applicable cases, an arrest warrant.

How Does a Police Officer Get Information on a Driver?

A license plate covers a car, not any particular driver, so it is not always possible to get the full information on the person driving the vehicle at any given moment. And of course, if a car is stolen, then a license plate number won’t tell you anything about the person driving the vehicle. But without actually speaking to the individual, a driver's license is the most effective way for a police officer to get information on a driver. If a driver's license is not available, a person's social security number can be used. If the driver does not know that info either, their name and birth date will suffice.

Refusing to give an officer one’s social security number will make it appear as though the driver is trying to conceal their identity. If a police officer asks you for information, you do have a right to refuse, but it could mean spending the night in jail waiting for an attorney.

Beyond the information that appears on a driver's license after running a license, the officer will be able to see warrants for arrest and driving history.

The Bottom Line

You can’t run someone’s license plate number for personal reasons. But if you witness a crime taking place, you can definitely run that plate for free — you just won’t be on the receiving end of the details.