KPRC 2 investigation into temporary tag problem is getting results

Ride-along with law enforcement ticketing temp tag offenders, trip to Austin for answers

Our ongoing KPRC 2 Investigation into Texas’ temporary tag problem is getting results, spurring law enforcement to crackdown. Plus, the head of the state agency under fire has stepped down. We know this paper plate problem is a public safety issue that is important to you. It’s why our Investigates team is pressing for answers and continuing to dig to let you know what state and local leaders are doing about it.

KPRC team gets first-hand look at the temp tag problem on the roads

In just one hour on a morning ride along with Harris County Precinct One Deputy Constables, our crews saw firsthand the issue law enforcement is dealing with on our roads.

KPRC 2 Investigates team rides along with law enforcement cracking down on the temp tag issue in Houston. (Copyright 2022 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Hit after hit, deputy constables confiscated fraudulent temporary tags and impounded the vehicles. They collected a huge stack of fake tags in just two weeks in January from 158 traffic stops.

“I found 10 other tags that were behind that one tag,” said Deputy Constable Martin Garret.

But the deputy constables know they could stop and impound cars all day, every day, and barely make a dent in Texas’ temporary tag problem.

“It has to start with the Department of Motor Vehicle,” said Garret. “If they fix all the loopholes, then the criminals won’t be able to access all of these tags and sell them for money.”

Why are there so many cars with temp paper tags?

KPRC 2 Investigates explained how the loophole works three months ago. Licensed car dealers in Texas can issue temporary paper tags to customers who buy a vehicle while they wait for their permanent metal plate. But the Texas DMV doesn’t require car dealers to prove who they say they are when they apply for a license. It’s resulted in “licensed” dealers selling millions of paper plates, but not a single-vehicle.

Vidor PD’s sergeant Ed Martin is one of a handful of officers in Texas teaching others in law enforcement how to spot fraudulent tags and how to crack down on the crime. We were invited to sit in on one of the training sessions.

“It’s making victims out of citizens. But it’s also allowing a criminal enterprise to prosper and it’s time to shut it down,” said Sgt. Martin.

We made a trip to Austin in January to ask questions at a DMV board meeting. Members voted to cut dealers off from the temporary tag portal immediately when they are suspected of selling tags fraudulently. Restricting access to the system used to take up to 10 days or more.

KPRC 2 Investigator Amy Davis attends DMV meeting in Austin to ask about the temp tags issue in Texas. (Copyright 2022 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“The removal of access for bad players is effective immediately,” said Whitney Brewster, then TX DMV Executive Director.

Family advocates for son killed by a driver with temp tag

The changes in Austin are both too little and too late for 18-year-old Terrin Solbrig.

“We want people more aware. This is not just about toll tags not getting paid. This is not about your inspection fee not getting paid. This can happen to anybody,” said Tawny Solbrig, a victim of temporary tag fraud.

Her son Terrin died instantly when he was hit by a truck driving on the wrong side of the road.

“Didn’t have a Texas driver’s license, no insurance, no state inspection on the vehicle, none of that,” said Tawny.

What the driver did have was a fraudulent temporary tag from two men charged with issuing nearly 600,000 paper plates in two years from fictitious car dealerships.

In January, deputy constables cited 1,363 drivers related to fraudulent paper license plate tags. (KPRC 2 / HCTRA)

Emmanuel Padilla Reyes aka Christian Hernandez Bonilla is still on the run. A federal investigator tells KPRC 2 Investigates they’re not even certain they have his real identity because the DMV doesn’t require car dealers to submit fingerprints.

“Right now, you can cut somebody off, but you still don’t know who they are. Without that you’re sitting there spinning your tires,” said Sgt. Jose Escribano, Travis County Constable Precinct 3.

While DMV executive director Whitney Brewster did direct staff to draft a policy for *possibly* fingerprinting dealer applicants she admitted that if it happens it is still months away.

“We anticipate that we would bring it back in June, for consideration of adoption by the board,” said Brewster.

Head of Texas DMV suddenly resigns

Just 10 days after that meeting in Austin, Brewster resigned, writing in an email to DMV staff, “Often the hardest thing to do as a public servant leader is to step back and accept that you have done everything you can and that it might be time to allow new leadership to take the reins.”

Two days later, the DMV’s general counsel Tracey Beavers also resigned.

“I don’t want to fight the DMV. I want cooperation. That’s all I want. And the general public deserves it,” said Sgt. Escribano.

Amy Davis speaks with Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia about fraudulent temp tags. (KPRC/Click2Houston.com)

Local leaders stepping up to try to fix the problem

“I believe that the state understands how big of a pile of you know what this is,” Harris County Commissioner Precinct 2 Adrian Garcia told Davis. A former HPD officer and sheriff of Harris County, Garcia said, “You have a segment of our population that is using this system to hide their identity and go out and commit crimes. That’s a problem.”

Garcia has asked Harris County deputies and deputy constables to begin noting on every incident report if suspects were in a vehicle with paper plates. The extra information will help the county determine exactly how big of a problem fake plates are.

“At least we can now begin to directly associate the violent crime that’s taking place with paper plates,” Garcia said. “We didn’t have that before.”

Do we ditch paper plates altogether?

The Tax Assessor-Collectors Association of Texas submitted a proposal to the DMV board in January, an idea to help stop the fraudulent use of paper plates.

“Instead of issuing paper plates, we could issue metal plates,” explained Shay Luedeke, tax assessor-collector for Bell County. “It would require the customer to come back to the dealership to get their real plate whenever we complete the title transfer. It’s just one way to prevent the fraud. Because with paper, obviously, you can go to the copy machine and just copy it.”

Luedeke says counties are losing money when drivers buy fraudulent temporary plates instead of getting their vehicles properly registered.

“We’re not getting the county road and bridge fees. We’re not getting the child safety fees. A lot of the local governments are missing out,” he explained.

No one on the DMV board commented on the idea when presented at the meeting.

Toll Road Authority cracks down

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is also losing millions of dollars in the fraudulent temp tag scandal. It reported to KPRC 2 that it was unable to collect $10.8 million from drivers of vehicles with temp tags that could not be matched to an owner.

In January, HCTRA launched an enforcement campaign called “Tag You’re it,” in which deputy constables assigned to the Harris County tollway system stopped vehicles with suspected fraudulent paper plates. In about 3 weeks, those deputy constables issued 1,363 temp tag citations and towed 115 vehicles with fraudulent tags or title issues.

During this crack down, deputy constable Martin Garret made a pretty bizarre stop. You can hear all about what he stumbled upon here in this KPRC 2 Insider exclusive:

(KPRC/Click2Houston.com)

Our KPRC 2 Investigates team will continue to track the latest developments on the temp tag problem in Texas. As always, let us know if you have a tip that could help!


About the Author:

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.