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The Mystery of the Missing License Plates

There I was, in the middle of a palm tree forest, taking pictures with my friend from childhood, on our way to a week-long yoga retreat. Nature called, so I crouched down for a quick

The Mystery of the Missing License Plates

There I was, in the middle of a palm tree forest, taking pictures with my friend from childhood, on our way to a week-long yoga retreat. Nature called, so I crouched down for a quick potty break, causing me to focus my gaze on my front bumper. Then I noticed it. My license plate – or placa – was missing.

My first thought was, “Did I knock it off somehow?” But then I noticed two gaping holes in the place where the license plate should have been affixed to the bumper. Apparently someone had ripped the metal license plate right off, screws and all. I hurried around to the back of the truck, hoping to have at least one license plate still in tact, but no such luck. Both placas were missing. I imagined a Mad Max style gang of thieves, using my stolen license plates to commit their car-related crimes.

Buckle up it’s gonna be a bumpy ride

What followed was a series of events that can only be described as ridiculous, illogical, and nightmarish. For now, I will spare you all the frustrating details and skip ahead to the end, a happy one. I was able to solve the mystery of the missing placas, and put my license plates back on my truck within a week, but I never made it to the yoga retreat.

I learned that what happened to me is not an uncommon experience, and that even locals find the bureaucracy involved to be confusing and unnecessarily complicated.

I hope that the lessons I learned the hard way, can be of some value to other Outliers. The purpose of this article is to provide a guide for anyone who may experience something similar. I wish you the best.

A note about parking

It is highly recommended to park in parking garages, paid parking lots or private driveways. But sometimes, parking on the street is unavoidable. This may leave your vehicle more vulnerable to having your plates taken or stolen. Be vigilant of parking signs, painted curbs and blocking private entrances.

Unofficial parking vigilantes, known in Costa Rica as guachiman, are a common practice throughout Latin America. Be aware that they may expect a specific, stated amount of money in exchange for watching your car while you are away. Others may simply hold out their hand to accept any spare change you might offer, after they help you navigate into or out of a parking space.

If your plates go missing

The first thing you should do if you realize that your license plate is missing, is take pictures. This will be important for reference/evidence in the upcoming days. Look out for any sign of damage. Inspect your windshield and hood, to see if there is a parking ticket. Take pictures of where you are parked, document other cars, the space around your car, and any particular signs in the area.

The next step will be to make some important phone calls. If you are not somewhere that you can do this safely, get yourself first to a nearby hotel, restaurant, gas station, etc. If you must drive your car, do so knowing that a traffic police or tránsito, could stop you for not having any placas and give you a ticket or even impound your car.

Reporting your plates stolen

If you find no signs of a parking ticket, and believe your license plates were stolen, you need to file two reports. First, call your insurance company and ask for an agent to come take a report. They will inspect your car, take pictures, and leave you a written report of their findings. You must also report the license plates stolen at the nearest police station. This police force is separate from the traffic police. The police that respond to violent crimes and theft are called the Fuerza Pública. They will take your statement and give you a written report.

What is COSEVI?

Whether or not you found a ticket, your next course of action will be to contact COSEVI. Shortened from its official name, Consejo de Seguridad Vial, this road safety council is one of several councils within the MOPT (Ministry of Public Works and Transportation).

COSEVI is charged with the task of ensuring proper use of the country’s roadways. They perform similar tasks as the US’s Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Transportation.

COSEVI took my placas and with that, the opportunity to show a little bit of my new home to a close friend.

Can they DO that?

Yes, COSEVI can take your license plates. This is a tactic they use to ensure receiving payment of a fine, resulting in a similar effect as impounding your car, but without the cumbersome tow-job. From what I always understood over the last 10 years of living and driving in Costa Rica, removing of license plates is a sanction reserved for severe or repeat violations. Repeatedly parking illegally and not paying your tickets, driving down the highway with a baby out of their car-seat, riding a motorcycle without proper safety gear – that sort of thing. But recently, I am hearing more and more about experiences like mine.

After 3 days of not knowing whether COSEVI had my license plates or not, I finally got my answer. Sort of. I learned that my placas had indeed been taken by the traffic police, and not by the roving gang of car thieves as I had originally suspected. They couldn’t tell me at the time that the plates had been taken two nights before the palm tree photo, in downtown San Jose for an apparent parking violation. I simply hadn’t noticed before that fateful squat. It wasn’t until Tuesday, a full 5 days after my license plates were taken, that the information about the infraction/offense appeared on COSEVI’s online platform.

I felt annoyed that I had gotten a ticket but never received it. But mostly I felt a sense of injustice. I am a foreigner, but I am a huge Costa Rica aficionado. I love this country! I am a careful driver, hence I have gotten only 2 tickets in my 10 years here, and paid both immediately. I pay my marchamo and Riteve on time. Heck, I would have paid the parking ticket the same day, if I had just been asked to.

Paying or appealing your ticket

If your license plates were in fact stolen, COSEVI will work with you to replace them. In the case that were removed from your vehicle as a sanction, you will need to pay or appeal the ticket in order to get your license plates back. If the vehicle is not in your name, you may need to provide a notarized power of attorney in order to proceed.

If you don’t have the physical ticket, COSEVI will issue you a duplicate copy. You must go to the nearest office to request this duplicate copy in person. An appointment is not required for this. Once you have the ticket in hand, you will be able to see exactly when, where, and why your license plates were removed. You can then choose to pay for or appeal the ticket.

The Mystery of the Missing License Plates


If you agree to pay the fine indicated on the ticket, you will need to make a deposit into the COSEVI bank account through BCR (Bank of Costa Rica). If you pay for the ticket within 10 business days, a 15% discount is automatically applied.


If you choose to appeal the ticket, you will need to complete the following process to impugnar una multa (contest a fine) within 10 business days of the first business day after the date the ticket was issued.

To appeal a traffic ticket, you will need to submit through email (impugnaciones@csv.go.cr):

  • a written appeal

  • proof (if you have it – this is where those pictures and reports will come in handy)

  • reason(s) for your appeal

  • proof of vehicle’s most recent registration

  • proof of your vehicle’s most recent inspection

  • copy of both sides of your valid ID

Making an Appointment

You must make an appointment in order to receive your license plates back. You should show up 15 minutes before the scheduled appointment time. If they call your name and you are not there, you will lose your appointment.

During your appointment, you will be asked to show proof of payment or submission of your appeal as well as your valid ID (Cédula, Dimex or Passport). After confirming that I had appealed the ticket, the COSEVI agent presented me with several forms to sign. I signed, acknowledging the receipt of my license plates and agreeing to be in touch regarding the appeal. I signed my name into a large book that barely fit through the space in the Plexiglas divider between us. At last, he went to the back room and reappeared with my placas in hand.

The End

After a trip to the hardware and auto part store and a visit from my handyman, I was able to attach my license plates back into their rightful place. The saga was over.

A positive attitude and patience always works to your advantage. Contact Outlier Legal if this situation ever happens to you. They are on a mission to help you achieve your dreams with fewer missteps.

Do you have a similar story you would like to share? Leave a comment to tell us about it and we may feature it, as well as tips for solving the problem, in future articles.



She serves as the Documents Manager. Amanda Bolton has a Bachelor's degree in Bilingual Education and a Fulbright Scholar in 2013. She worked as an elementary teacher for ten years, while developing an education service company and has also taught at the University of Costa Rica in Guanacaste. Amanda relocated to Costa Rica from Texas in 2012. She describes herself as authentic, dependable and compassionate.

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