Paper license plates used in recent shootings prompts crackdown

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A local law enforcement agency is urging state lawmakers to consider implementing what it believes are necessary changes at the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, TxDMV, in an effort to prevent the illegal use of temporary “E-Tags.” 

The Clean Air Task Force at the Travis County Constable Precinct 3 targets state inspection stations, motor vehicle dealers, and traffic enforcement of the “E-Tag” or paper license plate tag violations. The goal of the task force is to enforce the emissions standards of the Texas Clean Air Act and suppress criminal activity related to motor vehicle dealers, in addition to fraudulent safety inspections and paper license plates. 

In a 2017 KXAN Investigation, it was revealed that independent dealers can purchase salvage vehicles from auctions, put a fake paper license plate on them and sell them for a profit without making the changes necessary to make them safe — and legal — for residents to drive. We also found out that criminals can also use salvage vehicles or fake plates to mask larger crimes with cartel involvement, such as money laundering and trafficking of drugs and humans.

Two years after Travis County Constable Stacy Suits created the Clean Air Task Force, officers on the force tell KXAN that their investigations have revealed the DMV system is enabling the bypassing of state emissions/safety inspections, fraud and crime on a broad scale.

“They’re using dealer agent tags, buyers tags, dealer vehicle specific tags, 30-day permits, and they’re using all that in the commission of different crimes; robberies, burglaries, thefts,” said Sgt. Joe Escribano, who heads up the task force. 

The task force said a single minor dealer has produced in excess of 52,000 buyers tags with possible links to organized crime. Escribano explained the tags are then illegally produced using the TxDMV E-Tag system and sold on the internet nationwide.

The task force believes the problem is “systemic and statewide,” and will ultimately require a change in current state law, as well as additional law enforcement interventions.

Paper license plate part of recent Austin shooting investigation

As the push for change at the Capitol continues, KXAN has exclusively confirmed that a paper license plate is also an element of a recent officer-involved shooting investigation that spanned the Austin area.

Sources say a Maserati located in east Austin with a man’s body inside on March 17 had a paper tag on it when it shouldn’t have.

After viewing video of the vehicle being towed from the site, Sgt. Escribano noticed the Maserati had a Texas dealer agent tag. It immediately grabbed his attention. 

“It was a tag — a paper tag — that was being used illegally,” Escribano said. 

The vehicle was involved in the early morning officer-involved shooting early that morning near I-35 and Seventh Street downtown. 

“Those officers pulled that vehicle over, got involved with that vehicle and guess what? There were weapons in that car. That is not an isolated thing. You’re playing a shell game. You have no idea who you’re pulling over,” Escribano continued. 

The task force says it made seven recommendations to the Sunset Commission in an effort to better protect and allow law enforcement to do their jobs. The recommendations are: 

  1. Buyers Temporary Tags can only be issued to Motor Vehicles that have their VIN numbers verified through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for safety and emission testing.
  2. Adding Dealer and Dealer Agent Testing, and continued education requirement.
  3. Law enforcement is given direct access to TxDMV Dealer E-Tag Creation files and the Registration Title System (RTS) in real time.
  4. E-Tag System verification of 72-144 hour permits to ensure they are issued to commercial vehicles only. 
  5. Discontinue the use of Dealer Vehicle Specific Temporary Tag.
  6. Close the TxDMV website override capability for the emission and safety inspection.
  7. A Texas Department of Public Safety NCIC-TCIC computerized return on a Temporary Dealer Agent Tag (not to be confused with a dealer vehicle specific tag) should contain:
    • Dealer Agent’s full name and phone number
    • Dealer Agent’s Driver’s License Number
    • Dealership name and address 

The DMV responded to each of the recommendations:

  1. Buyers Temporary Tags can only be issued to Motor Vehicles that have their VIN numbers verified through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for safety and emission testing. There is not a statutory requirement for vehicles operating with a buyer’s temporary tag or other temporary tags to have the inspection verified prior to issuance. Further, dealer and converter temporary tags are exempt from vehicle inspection in statute (Transportation Code Section 503.062(c) and 503.0625(d)).
  2. Adding Dealer and Dealer Agent Testing, and continued education requirement. Mandatory dealer training is an issue under consideration by the legislature in HB 4405 by Representative Guillen and in amendment #14 by Senator Nichols to SB 604. The department currently provides training on proper use of temporary tags at its monthly dealer training seminars and stands ready to provide training to dealers if the legislature passes legislation making this a requirement for a dealer to receive a dealer license. The department also offers temporary tag training to law enforcement to aid in understanding the security features and information that should be present on legitimate tags.
  3. Law Enforcement is given direct access to TxDMV Dealer E-Tag Creation files and the Registration Title System (RTS) in real time. Law enforcement currently has real-time access to the data from RTS and the eTAG system through TLETS (Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications System). TxDMV currently provides DPS this information through a system interface directly connected to TLETS.
  4. E-Tag System verification of 72-144 hour permits to ensure they are issued to commercial vehicles only. There is not any indicator in our system to show that a vehicle is a “commercial vehicle.” The term relates to how the vehicle is used. A standard pickup truck can be considered a commercial vehicle. (Note: These tags are not issued by dealers through the eTAG system.)
  5. Discontinue the use of Dealer Vehicle Specific Temporary Tag. TxDMV does not see the value in discontinuing the issuance of Dealer Vehicle Specific Temporary Tags. The tags are linked to a specific vehicle that law enforcement can verify through TLETS.
    • Example: Tag #12345X6 is issued to a Black Ford F150 with a VIN XYZ12345678912. Law enforcement is able to verify that the tag belongs to the vehicle in question.

  6. Close the TxDMV website override capability for the emission and safety inspection. We are not aware of the reference to override capability. There is no “override capability” in the TxDMV system related to emission and safety inspection.
  7. A Texas Department of Public Safety NCIC-TCIC computerized return on a Temporary Dealer Agent Tag (not to be confused with a dealer vehicle specific tag) should contain:
    • Dealer Agent’s full name and phone number – The Agent’s Name is already returned in the system. We do not currently capture the phone number for the agent.

    • Dealer Agent’s Driver’s License Number – This information is not captured in the system. The agent operating the vehicle should have in their possession a valid driver license.

    • Dealership name and address – The dealership name is already printed on the tag and the same information is returned when the barcode is scanned. The department will evaluate adding the dealership address information to the system.

Representatives with the agency continued: 

  • TxDMV does not interface with NCIC-TCIC directly for Temporary Dealer Agent Tags. As mentioned above in #3, the department has an interface with TLETS for this information.
  • The agency does not capture specific personal information about the agent because the license holder (dealership) is ultimately responsible for temporary tags issued from the license holder’s account. 
  • The license holder is also liable for any misuse of the permitted operations of the vehicle while displaying the agent tag. TxDMV pursues administrative sanctions pertaining to misuse of the temporary tag system by license holders. Individuals found to be unlawfully producing, purchasing, using or selling temporary tags are subject to criminal liability. 
  • If the operator of a vehicle bearing a temporary tag is in violation of any traffic laws then the officer should request the operator’s driver license and issue a citation.

The DMV is currently under review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. The state panel has already identified that Texas lacks “basic safeguards to identify and address vehicle title fraud.” 

To read the entire staff report with commission decisions, click here.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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