Who Ain't Who

Want a way to dodge a minor traffic ticket or at least delay your fine? Here's the plan:

Memorize the name and address of an obnoxiously nosy neighbor, your girlfriend's new lover or the cousin who forgot your Christmas present. Better yet, pick a name and address at random from the phone book. Then, when a Houston police officer stops you for that defective tail light or illegal right turn, just look stupid and say you left your wallet at home. Pull your new alias from the memory bank in your brain and hope the cop will write the ticket out to somebody else. Sign the thing and you're on your way.

Ridiculous, you say. Houston police officers would never fall for such a shallow ploy. Guess again. It's a big problem for personnel at Houston's municipal courts building who say they must unravel an estimated 300 to 450 cases of false identification on minor traffic tickets every month.

And it's an even bigger problem for the obnoxious neighbor, the new boyfriend, the thoughtless cousin or the poor clod from the phone book -- who has undoubtedly just discovered a new reason for having an unlisted number. They are the victims, according to chief municipal courts judge Sylvia Garcia, who now face the difficult task of proving they've been falsely accused. It happens so frequently that Garcia has instituted a special procedure to help these victims try to demonstrate their innocence before posting a bond on the charges created by the smooth-talking con artists who assumed their identities to beat a ticket.

"If I could resolve one problem over here, it would be to do something for the victims of these cases," says the judge. She emphasizes the scope of the situation, but adds that she does not keep any official statistics yet on the number of false-identity cases handled each month.

Ron Beylotte, chief prosecutor for the municipal courts, says, "There is a lot of this, and with the tremendous volume there is not a lot of investigation we can do on them."

But Rick Hartley, spokesman for the Houston Police Department, insists that his department isn't aware of any great problem: "If a person is stopped without a driver's license, chances are good they'll be taken to jail. We have not been notified by the court about any problem."

So, yes, you face some risk. If you're caught in the act of stealing an identity, prosecutors can also charge you with giving false information to a peace officer, an accusation worth up to six months in the slam if the perpetrator lies while driving on a suspended license. So you'll need a good reason to take such a chance.

And Beylotte quickly notes that the odds of successfully using an alias are still stacked against you. He compares the 300 to 450 monthly false-identity cases with the 55,000 to 70,000 legitimate traffic tickets issued each month and calls the percentage "infinitesimal."

till, that's little consolation for the victims and the court personnel left to clean up after those who slip through an arrest by using an alias. Beylotte and Garcia agree that the courts spend more time than they should reviewing identity questions that probably could have been resolved on the street, when a ticket was issued.

I learned about this strategy for dodging tickets recently when someone near and dear to me (and therefore nameless here forevermore) showed me a surprise letter she'd received in the mail. Her experience demonstrates how easily it can happen. The letter informed her that the municipal courts had issued a warrant for her arrest on four different charges: driving with a defective tail light, failure to produce proof of insurance, failure to produce an operator's license, and failure to appear for her December 9 court date. It ordered her to surrender and post a $750 bond, or to plead guilty and pay $570 in fines.

"I haven't been stopped by the police in a long time," she said. "How did I get this ticket?"

Quaking with visions of marshals breaking through her door in the middle of the night to slap on the cuffs, she started searching for answers. And since I work cheaper than Clyde Wilson, she asked me for help.

The trail of suspects led quickly to a younger sister who admitted "borrowing" my friend's name and address to avoid arrest for a suspended driver's license. The sister just gave the cop a sob story about losing her wallet and then pinned the rap on my friend. Oh, the sister claims she harbored good intentions and planned to somehow take care of the tickets before my friend could find out. But the holidays were upon us. Time just slipped away. And since the sister hasn't yet offered to confess to the false-information charge, it looks like my friend now faces a task much more daunting than merely finding the architect of her woes. She now has to wallow in red tape, fight the charge herself and probably risk a rift in her family for snitching on her sis.  

At least she won't have to post a bond or pay the fines, thanks to Garcia's program for so-called "wrong-person motions." But she will have to prove her case to the satisfaction of the judges and prosecutors there. Ironically, it's an old story around the municipal courthouse for veterans like Garcia and Beylotte.

"It's still a big problem for the person whose name is used," concedes Garcia, noting that before she created the new procedure for resolving identity disputes, victims previously had to just pay the bond, plead not guilty, hire an attorney and fight it at trial. "They can now file a motion and prove they didn't get the ticket. It does take up docket time, and the volume has increased."

The first step is to short-circuit an impending arrest by filing one of Garcia's blue "motion for hearing on defendant's true identity" forms with the bond forfeiture section of the court, in room G-48. The clerk there, armed with a stack of forms and a file cabinet filled with last month's motions, is well prepared for the victims. She reports casually that she hands out ten or 15 a day. Filing the motion postpones the arrest warrant at least until the court completes its review.

Each form is three pages long and elicits information destined to play a key role in getting a false case dismissed before trial. The crucial elements include a comparison of the victim's license-plate number with the one on the ticket, plus room for five signatures from the victim for comparison with the signature taken by the police. It also wants the victim to list the names of suspects who might have used her name to avoid arrest. Garcia says a victim's ability to suggest a suspect increases the chances for a quick dismissal. And, she says, the police will follow up with an arrest on the spot.

"Ninety percent of the time it's a relative," sighs Garcia. "Sometimes my whole afternoon is booked with these hearings. I'll get both people in and the culprit will turn beet-red and confess. We've heard all kinds of things."

She says adult children have implicated their parents, twins have implicated each other, and jilted lovers have used the ploy to get even with their rivals. Sometimes, she says, the culprits have even tried to scam the whole court process by pretending to be the victims -- who may not learn about the ruse until their insurance agents call with the new rate and ask, "When did you get this ticket?" Sometimes they even sign up for defensive driving under the alias, hoping to eliminate the ticket for their victim.

She figures that the courts' 40 judges quickly dismiss about half of the false-identity cases through a simple review of the motions filed by the victims. The rest require a more formal hearing or a full-blown trial, where the officer must show up to identify the defendant. Of those, she estimates that another 50 or 60 percent end up dismissed. That means 75 to 80 percent of the identity motions on file probably have merit. And who knows how many of the remaining 20 to 25 percent are people who just successfully blamed someone else for their traffic tickets and got away with it?

"Not all these people are telling the truth," says Beylotte.
nd Garcia says she's even known a couple of lawyers who abused the process by filing false-identity motions just to delay paying a ticket they honestly deserved.

Beylotte traces the problem back to the administration of police chief Lee Brown in the mid-1980s, when it became policy to stop arresting people for Class C misdemeanors. But Garcia says she has discussed the situation with current chief Sam Nuchia, and she understands that the department is examining its policies with regard to motorists who can't show proper identification when stopped. Nevertheless, both court officials remain reluctant to recommend a standard policy requiring the arrest of anyone who can't produce a driver's license.

"If a person has no ID, I lean toward incarceration," says Beylotte. "But it's not always black and white."

Isn't there a chance that someone without a license just robbed a store or burglarized a house? Shouldn't this be sorted out at the jail just in case?

"I can't quarrel with that," he replies. "But, hey, I've left the house several times in a hurry without my driver's license. If I got stopped, I sure wouldn't want to go to jail for that. I don't believe that officers are required to incarcerate someone who doesn't have ID."  

The two court officials say street officers do need some latitude in using their personal judgment on traffic arrests, or our overcrowded jails will fall under even more intense pressure.

arcia says the problem is actually widespread. She's heard her counterparts in Austin, Dallas and even Los Angeles complain about the same thing.

"I can't believe people do this to each other," she says. "It's not a new problem, and it's not one that hasn't been brought to the attention of the Houston police."

Of course my friend now knows that other people -- even relatives -- really do things like this. Trapped in the identity crisis over at the municipal courts, she voices her doubts a little more strongly.

"What I can't believe," she says, "is that the police let people get away with this.

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