DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - It's a massive problem in North Texas and it's driving by you everyday: fake paper license plates. Consumer Justice Investigator Cristin Severance found out the task force dedicated to catching those crooks is being forced to shut down.
It's called the Dallas County Clean Air Task Force -- a misleading name for a group whose mission is to get fake paper tags off the road. The task force is made up of four traffic enforcement deputies and ten detectives. They say 90 percent of the paper plates on the roads are fake. The plates are mainly used to hide either the vehicle or the driver from the law. "And it's not just a certain part of the county," said Deputy Jerry Cox, "it's the whole North Texas area."
Criminals used to put phony inspection stickers on cars that wouldn't pass inspection. After Texas stopped requiring two stickers, investigators say paper plate fraud exploded. "I believe that since we went to the one sticker, the crime has tripled," said one undercover detective.
Consumer Justice rode along as the undercover detectives bought two fake paper plates from a man in a gas station parking lot. Deputies were waiting nearby to pull him over -- they arrested him and found a printer in his back seat. "He had been using [it] to obviously make these tags and distribute them," said the detective. The driver, Jose Hernandez, is now facing two felony charges of tampering with a government document.
It's not just citizens. The task force pulled over a Dallas County Deputy Constable driving his personal vehicle with a fake paper plate. Dash cam video shows Agustin Saucedo admitting to using a template on his home computer to print his own plates. Saucedo was charged with Reproducing Temporary Tags, a felony. The Dallas County District Attorney's Office later reduced the charge to Displaying the Wrong Plates, a misdemeanor equivalent to a typical traffic ticket. The DA's Office says it offered Saucedo a plea bargain because he wasn't giving the tags to anyone else. Saucedo was sentenced to 96 hours of community service, and resigned his job as a deputy constable.
Deputy Cox says the fake plates hide a bigger problem. "You don't know if that car with that paper tag is actually safe to be driven on the road." He says it's possible the car can't pass inspection, or the person behind the wheel doesn't have a driver's license or insurance.
Often the paper plates are sold to fund drug cartels, human trafficking, even terrorism. "Because the paper tags don't come back to a particular vehicle or person," said Cox, "we have certain dealerships that sell paper tags out the back door for money." You can also find tags for sale on Facebook, Craigslist, and other buy-sell-trade apps.
Now instead of focusing on crime, the task force is being forced out of business. For years clean air task forces across Texas were funded through a grant by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, with Dallas County pitching in 20 percent. The county paid for its share by adding a $6 fee to vehicle inspections. The money also went to the Low Income Repair Assistance Program or LIRAP, better known as Cash for Clunkers.
In July, Governor Abbott vetoed all funding to the state's clean air programs. When the state money dried up, Dallas County commissioners voted to stop sending that $6 fee to Austin. "We're not going to tax our taxpayers any longer for you to balance your budget," said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. "If you're not going to use this to fund our law enforcement, our cash for clunkers program, then we're not going to let you rip off our taxpayers."
When Consumer Justice contacted Gov. Abbott's office, a spokesman said the task force could apply for money from the state's Criminal Justice Division grant. The problem is, those funds wouldn't be available until September 2018. "So when the task force shrinks and the gangs get stronger, that's on the governor," said Jenkins.
Representatives of the Dallas County Commissioners and the North Central Texas Council of Governments both said they were working to replace the funding, but weeks after Consumer Justice started asking questions, there was still no solution in place.
Jenkins and Chris Klaus, a senior program adviser for NTCOG, told CBS 11 the deputies will be assigned to other jobs within the county with the hopes of bringing the task force back together in December.
"Our goal is to get them back together by Christmas," said Jenkins.
Klaus said they are working on finding the funding now.
"The immediate need is to come up with the funding to get the task force up and running as it was," said Klaus.
However, county sources told CBS 11, that timeline is unrealistic. The task force office is cleared out and all the surveillance equipment has been given to other divisions. The source said putting the group back together a few months after allowing it to dissolve wouldn't make sense.
Task Force Captain John Dohmann says the unit will be officially dissolved on September 30th. After that, he fears what will happen out on the roads. "If nobody is enforcing it anywhere... well, then it's just going to get worse."
Here's the Governor's full statement.
"The LIRAP program in question was the equivalent of the failed federal cash-for-clunkers program. It was a terrible deal for Texas taxpayers and the state's fiscal health, and most counties were not utilizing the money to combat drug trafficking. Funding for criminal justice programs like the one in Dallas County remains. Every year, the Governor's Criminal Justice Division makes $275 million available to criminal justice agencies in state and federal funding for programs just like these."
Spokesman for Gov. Abbott
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