HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Invalid paper plates are running rampant in the state of Texas. The state of Texas is one of the worst in the country and Harris County is the worst in the state, according to officials.
Sgt. Jose Escribano, who is part of the paper plate task force for Travis County's Precinct 3 Constable's Office, said there are at least 1.8 million fraudulent paper plates on the roads in Texas. He said that is a conservative number too.
When asked if he sees a lot of illegitimate paper plates, Houston police auto theft Sgt. Tracy Hicks said, "A lot is an understatement."
Hicks said it has gotten worse locally in the last five years. The counterfeit plates have become a way for criminals to hide their identities.
According to Hicks, almost all of the crimes he deals with involve fake paper plates.
"I've seen it with my own eyes. Doing surveillance on bad guys, where they will pull into a parking lot of a restaurant, unscrew the front plate, throw it in the trunk, take the back plate off or just take a fake tag with a magnet," Hicks said. "They pull across the street, go do their crime or whatever they're going to do, drive down the road a couple of miles and go back to their regular plate."
In July, 17-year-old David Castro was shot to death during a road rage incident after leaving an Astros game with his dad and brother.
The next month, New Orleans Police Detective Everett Briscoe and Dyrin 'DJ' Riculfy were shot on the patio of the Grotto restaurant in the Galleria area. Both died.
In each of the cases, the suspects had paper plates on the cars used during the murders. They were caught on surveillance video.
Police put out pleas to the public to help locate the suspects. Those cases captured the attention of our city, but they certainly are not the only ones.
Surveillance cameras captured Sandra Garcia being robbed of her purse in April on the north side of the city. Garcia said the men followed her about 15 miles from a bank on the southwest side of the city.
"He was trying to pull it and I pressed hard and he dragged me," Garcia recalled. "He dragged me until he left with it."
The suspects managed to get away with Garcia's purse, which had $10,000 in cash. The suspects who robbed her have not been caught. Both cars involved had paper plates, according to Houston police's robbery division.
"When a concerned citizen says, 'How come no officers are running these plates?' They are in between calls when they can and nine out of 10 of them are no good," Hicks explained. "Probably out of those 10 that have a fake paper tag, they are doing it because they can't get the title or they don't have the money to fix their car. Just giving them a citation for something... they already don't have the money to fix their car. Giving them a ticket for $400 because you don't have a good registration is not helping them out."
There are a number of reasons people are driving around with invalid tags.
In order to get a license plate, the car has to be registered. The DMV said you will be blocked from registering if a car does not pass an inspection or emissions test. Other reasons are if the owner has unpaid fines, fees, taxes or tolls or if they are flagged for not paying child support.
Law enforcement said it is safe to assume that many of the cars without valid plates are not carrying valid insurance. Despite having uninsured motorist insurance, getting into a crash with an uninsured driver could raise monthly costs.
"Depending on the collision claim, it could be anywhere from $100 to $1,200 a year," said Donna Baker, an associate insurance agent with Texan Insurance.
In addition to costing other drivers more, the problem is costing the state government millions. With at least 1.8 million cars statewide without real plates on their cars, the state is losing about $125 million on registration fees every year.
The untraceable "ghost cars" are able to pass through toll booths without paying.
From Sept. 2020 to 2021, the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority said 968,688 cars with invalid paper plates passed through their 14 toll booths.
TxDOT operates a portion of the Grand Parkway with 14 toll booths. Data from the agency indicates 772,724 cars with invalid plates drove on their roadway.
The Harris County Toll Road Authority said they had 412,285 cars with untraceable paper plates during the same time period. They operate 121 toll booths.
In response to a question about their data compared to the others, a spokesperson for HCTRA said, "We cannot speak to another toll agency's data. The data we provided was the number of vehicles which met the criteria of having traveled on the HCTRA system on the requested dates with paper plates that could not be associated with an owner."
The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles declined an interview on the problem plaguing the state.
Friday, they will host a round table discussion in Austin. A spokesperson said they have received numerous requests for interviews from the media. They said it was not the right time to comment in the past.
"What's funny is this problem is not really happening in other states like it is in Texas," Sgt. Hicks said. "It has a lot to do with accessibility to be able to do that. I don't know what the answer is with DMV."