paper tag nation

‘Somebody's Got to Answer,' Legislators Press Texas DMV Over Paper Tag Debacle

House Transportation Committee holds hearing with Texas DMV to better understand how crooks with dealer's licenses have been able to abuse the state's temporary plate system

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State lawmakers pressed the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Tuesday for answers about how the agency allowed the illegal sale of temporary license plates to spiral out of control.

In a House Transportation Committee hearing, Chairman Terry Canales pointed out the legislature gave the DMV authority in 2021 to immediately stop small car dealers suspected of selling tags from gaining access to the state's tag system.

But Canales questioned why it took the DMV more than seven months to implement administrative rules and begin immediately suspending the suspected fraudsters.

“I am not here to shoot the messenger but at some point, somebody's got to answer to this committee and the legislature as to why it would take so long and why the media has to be the one that uncovers it so that the agency we gave a directive to can actually do something," Canales said.

In November 2021, NBC 5 Investigates exposed how small dealers with no storefronts were continuing to print hundreds of thousands of tags, which law enforcement officials suspected were being sold for profit.

At Tuesday's hearing, Daniel Avitia, the DMV's new acting executive director, apologized for the delays in implementing the rules. He took over when the previous director, Whitney Brewster, resigned over the tag debacle.

State lawmakers pressed the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Tuesday for answers about how the agency allowed the illegal sale of temporary license plates to get so out of control.

"As painful as it may have been to see our agency in the media and receiving those black eyes, I will say that being in the media was part of the solution," Avitia said.

Avitia said it had been challenging for the agency, under his predecessor, to implement the rules due to the complexities of the state's administrative rule process.

By the time the DMV began taking swifter action, fraudulent tags were already begin put on cars used to commit serious crimes in Texas and across the country.

A top Texas of Department of Public Safety commander testified Tuesday that his agency is aware of more than 600 cases in 16 months where cars with paper tags were involved in suspicious incidents the department investigated. The tags make it difficult for law enforcement to identify the owner of a vehicle.

"Criminal street gangs and Mexican cartels are especially known to rely on this tactic, the pervasiveness we have seen time and time again", said DPS Deputy Director Floyd Goodwin.

Sgt. Jose Escribano, a Travis County investigator who specializes in tag fraud, told the committee that the state needs to reinstate funding for task forces that used to investigate tag cases in other major cities including Dallas, where the Dallas County Sheriff's Department once had a dedicated unit. That unit folded after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed funding that supported the task forces in 2017.

Canales urged officers to communicate with his office to help them understand what sort of funding is needed.

Committee members also discussed the need for tougher background checks for people applying for car dealer licenses and the possibility of replacing the current paper tag system with something else.

But Canales, who called the tag problem a "black eye" for the state, suggested many of the fixes could be implemented by the DMV alone, without assistance from the legislature, which cannot pass bills to address the problems until the House and Senate are back in session in 2023.

Tawny Solbrig, the mother of a young man killed in a crash involving a pickup truck that was on the road with an illegal paper tag, urged the committee not to hand the issue back to the DMV without continuing to hold the agency accountable.

"Make sure they are doing what they need to be doing because ultimately y'all are responsible too."

The DMV has previously said it is devising a plan to begin fingerprinting car dealers who can access the electronic tag system, and hopes to approve that plan as early as June. The agency has also discussed the need for more investigators to visit small car dealers and has said it is looking at the possibility of a new more secure system to replace paper tags.

The Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee is also investigating the paper tag mess and is expected to hold its own hearings on the issue soon.


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