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.
My original dumbfounded attitude was fast being replaced with a deep disappointment and sense of outrage. My hard-earned tax dollars were paying for a system that was neither efficient nor fair. I had not been allowed to present my case in court, as my citation had promised. I had not seen my accuser present at any time in the place where I presented myself, and I had wasted a whole morning -- when I should have been at work -- accomplishing absolutely nothing.
When I got back to my office, I searched the Internet to find an agency where I could file a complaint about this mess. I browsed the Web site of the state attorney general. I called the sheriff's department. The officer who answered the phone for the Harris County Internal Affairs intake was not encouraging about filing a complaint. He told me that unless I wanted to file one against a particular officer, he really couldn't help me. Since the traffic ticket with the officer's name on it had been surrendered behind the bulletproof glass, I couldn't provide it. He also pointed a finger at the dealership where I had purchased the car, implying that they probably hadn't followed the process for issuing my registration correctly.
I located a Web site for the court of the Honorable William Yeoman of Precinct 5. The court's address on the site matched the address on my ticket, and the site also listed an e-mail address for the judge.
So I sent the judge a letter. I explained the situation and expressed some frustration regarding the handling of this case. I didn't expect the e-mail would ever actually reach a judge, but before the close of business that day, I received a reply from Judge Yeoman himself. He made a weak apology for the condition of his courtroom...and said that I should call him.
"Wow," I thought to myself. "Maybe this is just all a huge mistake, and we can settle it over the phone." Oh, no. This was just the beginning of Round Two.
I called, as the reply had suggested. The judge instructed me to come on a Tuesday or Thursday at 8 a.m. and ask to speak with him personally when I arrived (so much for the over-the-phone solution). I told him the day I intended to come and hung up. I sighed and marked the calendar for that date.
As agreed, I arrived on the date specified and set off to find the judge. This time, the Courthouse Annex wasn't so crowded, but I realized that this was a day reserved for courtroom appearances. Nevertheless, probably 100 people crammed into the courtroom. Many had to stand in the back.
I spotted the judge and tried to approach him -- just as he had requested. He curtly told me to sit down and wait. He then launched into a standup comedy routine that could be successfully delivered at the Laff Stop any night of the week. I sat through it, waiting for what would come next. He called for questions, and by the time he reached my row, I was speechless. He had run through all the options for taking care of offenses so quickly, I was sure he must have mentioned my own at some point.
I decided to wait and see if it got better. It didn't.
I sat for the next four-and-a-half hours in the same spot, waiting for my name to be called. It was torture. When my turn finally came, I relayed my story to a very young district attorney hearing cases before a folding table. Again, my own accuser was nowhere in sight. She also seemed a bit confused by the whole thing. I informed her that I had spoken to the judge prior to coming today, and asked her to dismiss the tickets. She said she couldn't do that.
I never really understood the reasons she gave. All I knew was that I was not going to plead guilty to this mistake. I held my position on that, and before I knew it, she had scheduled me for a trial date sometime in...November of 2007. As I walked out, I could not have been more surprised.
I decided to get in touch with the agency where all this had started. I contacted Kim Sue Lia Perkes, a public information officer for the Texas Department of Transportation. She was helpful and provided the bulletin TxDOT had used to notify various agencies of the license plate-reissuing program. It specified a "County Action" advising that dealership customers keep documentation of their applications for title (a copy of Form VTR-31-RTS) in their cars for at least 30 days after purchasing new vehicles or being issued license plates as replacements by the county. "This will assure that the customer has documentation to present to law enforcement if it becomes necessary prior to the update of the vehicle record," stated the memo. "VTR continues to research the situation and will provide further information in the near future."
This bulletin had been addressed to all county tax assessors and copied to various agencies, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, dealer associations, the Texas Transportation Commission, the Vehicle Registration and Title office, and quite a number of executive-level personnel within their own agencies. Not included were any county law enforcement employees (which I thought a bit odd, since the section was titled "County Action"). I didn't see any other action items in the bulletin, so I guess this information was all supposed to trickle downhill somehow to the officers writing the tickets on the street. It hadn't, and I had the ticket to prove it.
Perkes apologized and said, "The good news is that your story gives us a chance to reach the public, so that they can protect themselves from encountering a situation such as yours."
I was faintly satisfied that I was helping my fellow citizens in some way, but I wasn't convinced that it was my job to educate the public on TxDOT policy. Despite never having seen the memo, I had kept my application for title in the car, but it hadn't mattered. The fact remained that there was a criminal offense with my name on it at the county courthouse.
The next call I made was to the Harris County Sheriff's Office public information officer, Lieutenant Tim Martin.
"I'm not really aware of this issue," was his response.
He did ask around and called me back to tell me that his traffic officer, Lieutenant Derrick Coleman, did know about this program, and that it had been in effect for quite a while. He gave me the phone number for Lieutenant Coleman, but I never was able to catch him in the office to answer my questions.
I realized I would have to wait until the fall for my case to reach a conclusion. But I was still angry about the condition of Judge Yeoman's courtroom. I had also decided to write this article on what happened.
After accepting an interview about why his courtroom was so jammed, Judge Yeoman instructed me to barge through the line of people and tell someone that I had an appointment, so that's what I did. He greeted me jovially and handed me a stack of paper. He started by explaining how the precincts had been redrawn over the past years to reflect a huge increase in his caseload at Precinct 5.
Judge Yeoman has been the judge in that precinct since 1979. "At that time," he stated, "I had a caseload of 500 cases annually." The Activity Report for 2006 stated that he processed 124,638 cases in 2006.
He pointed out that while his caseload had increased drastically, he was still in the same facility he started in, with a staff of 15. The judge said, "I had to establish a docket and establish a way to handle all the business except jury trials." He told me he had spent some of his own money to set up a scheduling system, which he shared with law enforcement personnel. He gave me printed copies of the schedule, and told me, "If it were followed, I would not have this problem with the long lines."
As to what could be done about the long lines, the judge expressed the opinion that we might follow the example of some other states and decriminalize traffic violations. While it might be a wonderful idea for the future, it didn't help me much with my situation. The law, as it stands, makes my violation a criminal one, and thus guarantees me certain rights. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution affords me the right, among others, to a speedy and public trial, and to be confronted with the witnesses against me. From what I can tell, neither of those things has happened. I have not seen my accuser since the night I received my ticket...even though I've been to the courtroom twice.
When I asked Judge Yeoman why those rights had been denied me, he stated, "We don't do it like that anymore," and abruptly ended the interview.
I also contacted County Judge Robert Eckels, who responded to my complaint by stating, "I will be addressing court facilities and manpower issues when the county goes through its budget review process next week." He thanked me for bringing this to his attention and giving him the opportunity to respond.
And that's where it stands today. I still have a traffic ticket for illegally driving a 1982 Chevy Blazer with an expired registration. I have never owned a Chevy Blazer and, to my knowledge, have never even driven one. My 2006 Honda Civic sits in the driveway...and my court date looms.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.