By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
In July 2006, I bought a new car. It was a big deal for me, and I floated along on a cloud of self-satisfaction for a couple of weeks. Life was grand. But when I went back to the dealer to pick up my official license plates, although I didn't know it, a storm of trouble was gathering to descend on me and rain all over my happy parade.
The very evening after I put the new license plates on, I was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. I gave the officer my driver's license and insurance and sat there mildly annoyed as he carried them back to his car. After a few minutes, he came back to the car and looked closely at the registration sticker on my windshield. It clearly read 7/2007. This was now September of 2006.
He looked confused, scratched his head, then went back to his car and did something for another 15 minutes that seemed like an hour. When he came back to the window, he told me that his computer said my car was a 1982 Chevy Blazer, and that the registration had expired back in 1993. That's when I must have looked confused. Clearly my 2006 Honda Civic did not resemble a Chevy Blazer. I thought that was pretty obvious, but the officer seemed insulted when I pointed it out. I also offered up my official application for title, which he inspected suspiciously, then dismissed.
When all was said and done, I had in hand a traffic citation for driving a 1982 Chevy Blazer with an expired registration. As he thrust the pink citation through the window into my dumbfounded face, he suggested I call my car dealer and find out why this was all happening.
I did just that. I was on the phone to the dealership first thing the next morning. The receptionist told me to come right over. I wasn't expecting to do more than get another set of plates, along with some sort of explanation as to why they had given me the ones I had. But that's not what happened. Instead, the receptionist handed me a copy of a memo from the Department of Transportation's Web site, stating that they had implemented a policy back in 2005 to start reissuing plate numbers from old vehicles that were no longer on the road. It also stated that they had done a less than stellar job of communicating this information to their various state, county and local law enforcement agencies. It said they had only found out "by accident" -- from people like me.
The first drop fell from my cloud of trouble, and I resigned myself to the inevitable. I would have to waste my time, take off work and go to court to get the ticket dismissed. End of story...or so I thought.
A month or so went by, and my court date approached. I made special arrangements to take some time off from a job I had started a few months previously and drove over to the Harris County Courthouse Annex in west Houston on the morning indicated. My ticket said that court was at 9 a.m., so I arrived about 7:55 a.m. to give myself plenty of time to be in the right place. As I turned the corner onto Clay Road, I noticed the traffic was quite heavy. Not so unusual for that time of day, but it did seem excessive, even to this seasoned Houston driver.
As I neared the address, I realized that the reason for all the traffic was the Annex itself. The cars were jammed inside the parking lot, circling the entrances and exits and generally finding nothing available. I spent 15 minutes making one futile loop through it. I finally went across the street, parked on an empty, grassy lot, and took my life in my hands crossing back over Clay Road on foot.
As I navigated back through the angry drivers still circling the lot, I noticed that there were a lot of people standing in a long line waiting to get inside the building. I wasn't sure what to do at that point, so I took my place at the back of the line. There really wasn't much else I could do, since the doorway was completely jammed.
After 30 minutes, I made my way through the door and spotted a woman in uniform. I tried to ask her what I should do about this, and she just told me to keep standing in the line. I did that for another three hours.
When my turn finally did come to speak to someone, I was directed to a window that looked like bulletproof glass, with a small hole cut in it for speaking. The person on the other side turned out to be a woman with a thick German accent, who neither cared what I had to say nor understood me. When I told her I had come to have my ticket dismissed, she told me that she couldn't do that, and that I would have to come back on a different date to present the ticket to the district attorney in court. I told her that's what I had come for today. She said it didn't matter. She shoved a piece of paper through the hole and told me to come back on said date, and to move on.