Vague state law puts drivers, officers in sticky situation
It came and went without too much fanfare, but thousands of Texas motorists are learning about state license plate laws the hard way.
In 2003, the Texas Legislature passed law SB 439, stating it is illegal for motorists to add reflective material, lights, emblems or anything else that changes the color of the license plate or would make it difficult to read the letters on the license plate. The name of the state where the vehicle is registered must be visible. The purpose of the law is to ensure toll road surveillance cameras are able to identify license plate numbers from unauthorized vehicles passing through toll plazas. It also makes it easier for crime witnesses to read license plates in order to capture information for law enforcement, especially during hit-and-run incidents, kidnappings and Amber alerts.
Since its passage, Texas law enforcement officers, including those of the Houston Police Department, have taken a strict approach in enforcing the law, believing that no part of the license plate may be covered including “any part of the cowboy” on the Texas plate. They have issued thousands of citations to motorists whose license plate numbers, letters and state origin are perfectly visible.
One of the things police officers call an obstruction of the license plate is the license plate frame. Most new cars in Houston are delivered to their owner with a frame advertising the car dealer’s name. Most frames do not cover the state name or any numbers and letters that would prevent identification of the car, but because they cover the words “Lone Star State” at the bottom of the plate and part of the cowboy, police say they are in violation of the law. Ordinary law-abiding citizens are caught in this trap because they bought a new vehicle with a dealer license plate frame.
Both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Houston Mayor Bill White have agreed this law is too vague. A revision has been written and signed to clarify the true intent of SB 439. It takes effect Sept. 1; yet, officers are still permitted to stop a vehicle if objects are covering any part of the driver’s license plate.
“It’s the law, and it’s our job not to interpret but to follow,” Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt told the Houston Chronicle. “When the (new) law takes effect in September, then we abide by the changes.”
Could it be about money? Officers have already ticketed more than 9,200 motorists since January, including 2,200 after Gov. Perry signed the new version of the law May 4, 2007, allowing drivers to still advertise dealerships or school affiliations. The city of Houston proposed this law would generate $4.1 million in revenue in 2007. It has already accumulated $931,000 in ticket fines; $231,000 was after Gov. Perry signed the new bill. Fines can range from $98-$200 and in some cases, even jail time.
I was recently pulled over for speeding and was issued a second traffic violation for having my license plate obscured by a dealer’s frame. I didn’t even know this was a law. When I questioned the dealership about the frame they put on my car, a representative said, “From our knowledge, it’s not illegal.” The dealership then explained how to get the ticket dismissed in court.
I went to court; the prosecuting attorney told me to pay the $150 license plate violation and they would dismiss the speeding ticket.
Some officers use this vague interpretation of this law as a reason to pull vehicles over. One driver who asked to remain anonymous was stopped and arrested for suspicion of DWI. Though the officer never mentioned it to her, his report stated he stopped her “to let her know her license plate was obstructed.” Her vehicle also had a dealer’s license plate frame. An HPD officer who didn’t want to be identified says, “When writing a ticket, we must state why we pulled the motorist over. It could have been because their license plate numbers were unreadable, but we don’t have to necessarily give them a ticket for that; the only offenses we are required to give an automatic ticket for are no drivers’ license and no insurance.”
He follows with a memo sent out by Hurtt stating officers should use discretion when issuing tickets for an obscured license plate. Officers are allowed to stop drivers for this initial violation, but are directed to pass on the opportunity of issuing this citation.”
According to the officer, it’s not just license plate frames that can get motorists pulled over and ticketed. In some cases, drivers are stopped if their license plates are too dirty and unreadable within a 100-foot radius.
Many struggle with how the strict interpretation of this law protects and serves citizens. Most feel ticketing drivers for obscuring the words “Lone Star State” on their license plate is just a way of making more revenue from taxpayers.
Houston is not alone. Other Texas cities are heavily enforcing this law, using the same interpretation. Texans have to be on guard until Sept. 1, when the clear-cut revisions become law. n
Researched by Jamaica Negrete.