Friday, February 16, 2007

Court ruling renders some TxTag stickers illegal.

License plate law ensnares some TxTags

Toll-paying 'transponders' that mount on front bumper could fall under court ruling.

February 16, 2007

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

First came the distressing news that many Texas vehicles are operating illegally, with license plates partially obscured within frames that violate the law.

Now comes word that a state agency may be contributing to the delinquency of drivers.

Texas transportation officials are studying the impact of a Wednesday court ruling that apparently renders certain toll road tags illegal.

If a vehicle cannot adequately display the TxTag stickers on the inside of the windshield, then the tag must be mounted on the front license plate. At toll plazas, scanners read the tags and deduct toll payments so drivers don't have to stop.

Several hundred vehicles use the devices, which are attached to the front bumper through the license plate bolt holes and cover most of the word "Texas" on the plate.

However, state law prohibits obscuring any portion of the license plate, including the state name and decorative artwork such the space shuttle and a cowboy on a horse, according to Wednesday's decision by the state's highest criminal appeals court.

"What we'll do is immediately look at the ruling, visit with our general counsel and with our toll technology staff . . . to see what options we have and make sure everyone who has the toll tag is following the law," Gaby Garcia, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said Thursday.

It is unknown how long the review will take, Garcia said. Of the more than 200,000 TxTags issued statewide, 340 are the bumper-mounted variety, Garcia said.

Auto dealerships, which supply many of the offending license plate frames, also are struggling with the implications of the Court of Criminal Appeals' 8-1 ruling, which found that a strict reading of the law prohibits covering any portion of a license plate.

After the current law was adopted in 2003, auto dealerships changed their frames to models that were thinner on top — allowing the word "Texas" to be fully displayed — and thought the vehicles were in compliance, said David Elattrache, general manager for David McDavid Acura in far Northwest Austin.

Those frames now will be removed from cars in the sales lot, he said.

"I'm going to send out an e-mail to all my customers and make them aware of what the decision was and tell them that if they can't do it, or if it's inconvenient for them, we'll be happy to take them off for them," Elattrache said. "It looks like a bunch of us will be sitting with inventories (of frames) we can't use."

A concurring opinion signed by three judges called the law "uncommonly bad" because it allows police to pull over, ticket and possibly arrest the large number of drivers whose license plates are obscured.

Richard Woerndell's truck displays the bumper toll tag because mounting a TxTag below the rearview mirror would block his line of sight and sun shading on the windshield above the mirror would block the tag's signal.

The Austin man hopes police will recognize that the devices were provided by a state agency.

The problem, Woerndell said, is that many officers will be unfamiliar with the devices because most of Texas is without toll roads.

"I can just see myself trying to explain to a constable in Egypt, Texas, that this is something issued by TxDOT," he said.

Moving the bumper tag may not be an option, Woerndell said.

"I called yesterday to find out if can I relocate it, but they said you've got to have it right there" for toll road scanners to register the tag, he said.

Meantime, at least four bills are pending at the Legislature to amend the license law.

Companion bills filed by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, (Senate Bill 369) and Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, (House Bill 348) would make it illegal to obscure more than half of the state name and — more to the point for TxTags — allow toll-road "transponders" to be attached to the plate.

"The license plate has to be clear enough that you can distinctly read the license number and enough of the state name," Callegari said. "That's really all we need to have visible for law enforcement to do its duty."

The House Transportation Committee is scheduled to consider Callegari's bill Tuesday.

A bill by Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, (HB 743) would make it illegal to obscure only the license plate number, not the surrounding artwork.

And one by Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, (SB 631) applies only to covered license numbers and state names, not cowboys and space shuttles.

Similar bills were filed last session, to no avail.

But Wednesday's court ruling should provide a sense of urgency this session, Callegari said.; 912-2569

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