Constables along Harris County toll roads are about to step up to the plate, at least the paper ones.
Responding to what local and state authorities call an epidemic of fraudulent temporary vehicle tags, police that patrol Harris County Toll Road Authority lanes said they will be on the lookout for illegal car and truck tags. The enforcement campaign, called “Tag You’re It” starts Saturday, officials said, and will run through the month. Additional constables will be trained on how to spot fake tags on Jan. 20, so enforcement can continue as part of routine patrols.
In cases where it is warranted, police could impound vehicles, based on the constable’s policies, HCTRA spokeswoman Roxana Sibrian said.
For toll officials, the fake tags pose a range of problems. It is virtually impossible for tolling agencies to find and bill drivers, who skip out on tolls. Vehicles illegally tagged often are outside the rules to avoid safety and emission inspections. In some cases, the automobiles are tied to other crimes, as a means to avoid detection.
Harris County officials last month approved a study analyzing how much the county loses in toll revenue and registration payments to fake tags, while also agreeing more funding is needed for fake tag enforcement.
“This is such a big deal that it would do a lot to invest this money,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said during the Dec. 14 meeting.
How that funding is framed, however, remains unclear, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey, who sought $5 million for additional patrols, saying routine policing increases also can address the proliferation of paper plates.
“I think it is all the same in terms of law enforcement, particularly in underserved areas,” Ramsey said.
Toll road officials said the aim of the campaign is to work from the drivers toward the sources of the problems
“The goal is to identify and pursue persons or dealers selling the illegal registration plates,” HCTRA officials said in a release.
Constables, if they can trace drivers to the dealers or whoever sold them the temporary tags, will turn that information over to Houston Police and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for further investigation.
In some cases, drivers of illegally-tagged cars and trucks could be victims.
“Some drivers may be unaware they have purchased a vehicle that cannot be legally registered due to a title or emission issue,” HCTRA officials said. “Those individuals who may have been victimized by deceitful business practices will be referred by law enforcement to the appropriate entity to assist in resolving the matter through civil or criminal proceedings.”
Since last April, officials said constables — various precincts have responsibility for traffic enforcement in their area along HCTRA roads — have cited 2,102 drivers and made 110 arrests related to fraudulent tags.
Enforcement, however, is dwarfed by what officials think is an ocean of fake paper tags. At least tens of thousands are believed to be in southeast Texas, with police in Travis County estimating between 2 million and 6 million fake Texas tags could exist worldwide.
Abusing what police have called a flaw in the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles system, scammers have for four years established fake car dealerships and printed tens of thousands of fake tags before authorities could identify and shut down their online access.
The DMV board is set to meet Jan. 27, where officials could begin closing some parts of the loophole by limiting the number of temporary tags dealers can issue and banning some users found to have abused the online system. Though police have criticized the department for not moving faster, DMV officials have said rule changes take time and deserve consideration.
“The department continues to enhance its licensing processes in an effort to catch the small number of bad actors seeking to use a dealer’s license for criminal activity, but not create barriers or additional burdensome costs for the more than 20,000 legitimate dealers in the state of Texas,” DMV spokesman Adam Shaivitz said in a Dec. 10 email.