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Minnesota State Statute 169.79 states that no person shall operate, drive or park a motor vehicle on any highway without numbered plates.

Furthermore, the statute says that tags must be displayed horizontally with the letters and numbers facing outward, mounted in an upright position, and kept "plainly visible" at all times. They must also be properly secured to the bumper to prevent them from swinging or falling off. Displaying them in a window is illegal and a ticketable offense, said Sgt. Rory Bochniak of the Burnsville Police Department.

So what happens if a tag is lost or stolen? One reader asked The Drive that after finding a wayward license plate for a trailer lying on N. 7th Street in Minneapolis.

The simple answer is that without a plate you cannot drive legally.

But motorists who are short a tag are not totally out of luck, said Stephanie Kaufenberg of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. If a plate is lost or stolen, motorists can buy replacements at any office that provides vehicle services. The cost for one regular plate is $4.50 and $6 for two, plus the filing fee charged by the office handling the transaction. Naturally, you'll have to fill out a form, too.

More than 542,700 Minnesotans have specialized plates, and those can take longer to replace because issuing outlets such as city halls don't always have the desired plate in stock.

In those cases, drivers must submit an application to the Department of Motor Vehicles in St. Paul and will receive them by mail, Kaufenberg said. Specialized plates include those that have been personalized with family names, show support for the agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources, pay tribute to groups such as veterans or promote colleges. They also include those issued to the handicapped or used on boats and trailers and collector vehicles.

Once a person applies for new plates, which can also be done online or by mail, the lost or stolen plate number is noted in the state's tracking system and is no longer valid, even if the missing plates turn up later.

When a tag is lost or stolen, vehicle owners should contact law enforcement immediately, Bochniak said. License plates reported as lost or stolen make it easier for law enforcement to catch crooks.

"That happens a lot," Bochniak said. When people steal plates, "They put it on a similar-looking vehicle and commit their crime. But when we run the plates, we know it does not go with that vehicle and we can make the stop."

Vehicle owners can apply for special registration plates or a vehicle permit, which will allow them to drive legally until permanent plates can be obtained. A copy of the police report will be necessary.

The report also could come in handy should another person get a ticket, be involved in a crash or get into other kinds of mischief using a vehicle bearing the stolen plates.

Lost and stolen plates can also be fed into the National Crime Information Center operated by the FBI. Police can tap into that and check the tag against the database.

It isn't clear how many license plates are reported lost or stolen each year because state law does not require the Department of Public Safety to keep such records.

If anybody finds a license plate, they can turn it in at any location that provides vehicle services. However, there is no requirement to do so, Kaufenberg said.

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.