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Temp Tags Begone! After Streetsblog Investigation, Texas Eliminates Paper License Plates

Texas will eliminate temporary license plates — the paper versions of real plates that nefarious dealers and outright crooks around the country are selling to drivers to avoid speed cameras, commit other vehicular crimes or simply to keep driving if they lack insurance or a driver's license.

12:01 AM EDT on June 15, 2023

One down, dozens more to go.

Texas will eliminate temporary license plates — the paper versions of real plates that nefarious dealers and outright crooks around the country are selling to drivers to avoid speed cameras, commit other vehicular crimes or simply to keep driving if they lack insurance or a driver's license.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that will phase out the temp tags entirely by July 2025.

The measure will be seen as manna from heaven for law-enforcement agencies across the nation, but mostly in New York City, where fraudulently issued temp tags are sold in a huge black market to drivers who later commit crimes. City officials have been trying to crack down on the drivers themselves, but mostly after the fact — after the illegally registered driver has hit something or killed someone.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of drivers evade the city's speed and red-light camera enforcement program, costing New York City millions in revenue and an unquantifiable price in the form of unsafe roads.

Click here to read Streetsblog's six-month investigation. Graphic: Martin Schapiro

A six-month Streetsblog investigation revealed the inner workings of the scam, which can either involve legitimate used car dealers using a state's electronic plate system to issue a real tag under false pretenses or shady business people who merely run off copies of temp tags that nonetheless fool local authorities.

That investigation has led to changes in many states, including New Jersey, Georgia and now Texas, where lax regulations created the conditions for exploitation of motor vehicle rules.

But Texas's problem with temporary license plates goes back further.

"The current temporary paper license plate system in Texas has provided criminals an easy way to disguise vehicles, avoid prosecution, and inflate a public safety problem in Texas," the bill stated [download]. "The use of fraudulent paper license plates has resulted in the death of law enforcement, enabled drug cartels and human smugglers to avoid law enforcement, and created a more than $200 million black market industry in Texas."

Texas does not have speed cameras, but the issue for local authorities has been the ability of bad or criminal drivers to make their cars "virtually untraceable," Daniel Scesney, the police chief in the town of Grand Prairie and a leading champion of the Texas reform, told CBS News.

"If you've got a computer and printer at home, you can make a Texas paper tag," he added.

Scesney took the crime personally. In November, officer Brandon Tsai died in a crash while pursuing a car with a fake plate. The driver was wanted on warrants in Bedford, DeSoto, Grand Prairie and Waxahachie, police later said.

In addition to making cars untraceable, ghost car owners don't pay sales taxes when they purchase a car, costing local authorities millions in revenue.

Federal courts have also gotten involved in busting fugazy dealers using Texas tags; last month, a Houston woman was found guilty and is now facing up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for "conspiring with others ... to buying and selling thousands of fraudulent Texas-issued temporary buyer tags," the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas wrote. "None of the paper tags issued were for legitimate vehicle purchases and some were for cars outside of Texas."

Octavian Ocasio

That case stemmed from a 2021 case involving two other men, including the so-called "Used Car King of New York," Octavian Ocasio. He pleaded guilty in 2022.

Outrage over abuses of the Texas plate system caused heads to roll in the Lone Star State. In 2022, the head of the state's Department of Motor Vehicles resigned amid pressure to address the ability of criminals to act with apparent impunity.

After Streetsblog NYC investigative reporter Jesse Coburn's richly detailed series on the black market in New York City, Streetsblog reporters openly mocked the ease with which people can obtain fraud tags with a weekly #TempTagTuesday series. In one case, a reporter obtained a fake tag in the name of the head of the Georgia agency in charge of car registrations; in another, he got a Florida temp tag with Gov. Ron DeSantis's name on it. Also mocked were Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland and Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey.

Streetsblog Editor Gersh Kuntzman with his easy-to-obtain fake New Jersey tag.

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