June 19, 2007

Okay, so yesterday we learned that HPD officers are still ticketing cars that have license plate frames, even though the existing somewhat-unclear law on the subject was changed to exempt most such frames this past session. The law doesn't take effect until September 1, but the issue has been known - and complained about - for awhile now. Turns out that even Mayor White was in violation of the old law, but had so far escaped an encounter with one of the more dedicated ticket-writers. All that may have led to today's announcement by the Mayor that enough is enough.

Calling the practice a "gotcha system," Mayor Bill White on Monday said Houston police shouldn't ticket motorists for having common brackets around their license plates that will no longer be illegal when a revised state law takes effect in September.

The department had been issuing the $98 tickets under a broadly worded state statute intended to prevent motorists from trying to evade authorities by obscuring their plates.

The state's top appellate court ruled recently that the law's wording meant that any covering of the plate -- even the stars, moon or state nickname -- was a violation.

The Houston Chronicle reported Sunday that officers had issued at least 9,500 such tickets since January, including 2,200 since Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill that would allow drivers to have brackets advertising car dealers or touting alumni affiliations.

White said he planned to tell both Police Chief Harold Hurtt and the city's top prosecutor, Randy Zamora, that motorists shouldn't be punished if an officer can reasonably determine the state and plate numbers.

"Our law enforcement officers should have better things to do," White said. "We're not there to just have some gotcha system. The purpose of these moving-violation citations is to discourage unlawful behavior, not to generate the maximum amount of revenue possible."


The mayor's position is consistent with a bill, authored by state Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, that removes the broad language from the state's transportation code that prohibited obscuring any design feature of a plate. A motorist also would have to cover more than half the state's name, generally not an issue with license brackets, to be in violation.

Perry signed a companion version of Callegari's legislation, offered by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, May 4.


Callegari said Monday he was pleased the mayor intervened.

"Somebody might get a ticket today, and three months from now they wouldn't. That's certainly not fair," he said.

Indeed. This is far from the first poorly-written law whose literal interpretation by an enforcement body has led to a bad outcome (four words: "wheelbarrow filled with cash") and an eventual legislative do-over. In just about every case, a little common sense would have gone a long way, but that's not how things work around here, as the court ruling that upheld the broad definition of what constitutes obscuring a license plate demonstrates. Better late than never, but far from best.

City prosecutors say they will consider dismissing past citations if motorists come to court and bring a picture showing they've removed the bracket, or that it complies with the spirit of the law.

I wonder how much trouble it would be for the prosecutors to set up a web page with a form that would allow you to submit a photo electronically, along with all of the relevant information about your case. Seems to me that it's the least they could do.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 19, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

My wife and I got pulled over for this a few years back. Both of us were seriously upset - the cop didn't even issue a written warning, it was literally nothing but an excuse to pull people over to check for insurance.

I was stunned that the appeals court upheld the law, which seems to tread dangerously close to a 4th Amendment issue. Glad to see enough people raised a stink that it got changed.

Posted by: Buhallin on June 20, 2007 9:46 AM

I wonder how much trouble it would be for the prosecutors to set up a web page with a form that would allow you to submit a photo electronically, along with all of the relevant information about your case.

Given how well the HEC and the new municipal courts computer system work, I'd say it would be a lot of trouble and expense for a system that probably wouldn't work very well at all.

To borrow from you, that's how things work around here, especially when it comes to government. Or actually, DON'T work. :)

Posted by: Kevin Whited on June 20, 2007 7:48 PM