Houston police officers continue writing tickets to motorists with brackets bordering their license plates despite a new law passed last month making it clear drivers should be cited only if the plate is significantly obscured.
Since January, officers have issued at least 9,500 citations for what they considered license plate obstructions — generally the brackets advertising car dealers or touting sports and alumni loyalties.
Municipal court records also show that since May 4, when Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill that clarified the existing law, at least 2,200 motorists have been cited.
The new law doesn't go into effect until September, but the zeal with which tickets have been issued since Perry signed it has angered some of the cited motorists and disappointed the two Houston-area lawmakers who clarified the rules during the recent legislative session.
"It was never the intention of the Legislature for people to be receiving traffic citations for having license brackets," said state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who sponsored the bill. "It's clearly out of bounds for them to be issuing tickets now."
He added a common complaint among motorists interviewed by the Houston Chronicle: "It gives the impression that they're just trying to collect revenue."
The Houston Police Department knew about both the substance and spirit of Williams' legislation. The department's lobbyists even supported the bill, along with an identical measure by state Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy.
Yet despite the passage, commanders say officers are still working under a more broadly worded law, passed in 2003, that was largely intended to prevent motorists from sneaking past toll-road cameras.
"I'm bothered by the fact that the authorities might see fit to continue to give out tickets," Callegari said.
In their defense, police commanders note that the state's highest criminal appellate court has ruled that, because of the 2003 prohibition's wording, the ban technically extends to any covering of a license plate.
That includes the identifying letters and numbers, officials say, but also innocent obstruction of the stars, moon, space shuttle or state nickname — a ban so loose that even Mayor Bill White's official city vehicle wasn't in compliance until last week after Chronicle inquiries.
The clarified law, once it goes into effect, would prohibit covering more than half the state name, typically not a problem with dealer brackets.
The new version also strikes broad language that extended the ban to an "original design feature of the plate," wording the court applied in its decision this year.
Police Chief Harold Hurtt said officers might still be issuing the $98 tickets until September.
They've done so at a rate of roughly 2,000 per month, according to a database of citations from Jan. 1 to June 1 obtained under the Texas Public Information Act.
"It's the law, and it's our job not to interpret but to follow," Hurtt said. "When that law takes effect in September, then we will abide by the changes."
Officer wrote 30 in one day
Meanwhile, the city's chief prosecutor said ticketed motorists can present themselves at the court with photographic evidence they have removed the bracket, and the city will consider dismissing the case.
The department's most prolific officer, Matthew Davis, issued at least 1,216 license bracket tickets since January. He wrote 30 in one day in February and has issued more than 200 since Perry signed Williams' bill.
Davis, a 10-year veteran praised by his supervisor as a highly motivated traffic enforcer, also is among the department's highest-paid rank-and-file officers in recent years. He has been paid $162,000 in overtime since 2004, spending extra time in municipal court hearings handling his citations, city payroll records show.
Motorist Tammy Ayers encountered Davis on May 22 when she was pulled over for violating the 45 mph zone on the access road to the North Loop at North Shepherd.
Davis cited Ayers, 38, for speeding but also for a license bracket placed on her Lexus SUV by the dealer. He also cited Ayers, who has had vision-correction surgery, for not having a current eye exam.
"I wasn't thinking in terms of the fact that this guy is trying to rack up as many charges as he can on one ticket," Ayers said.
'Everyone' pulled over
Ayers, whose case is pending, said she didn't know about the 2003 law — or that having a bracket around her license plate wouldn't be a violation in a few months: "It's absolutely unfair."
She wasn't alone that day.
During the two-hour period around the same time, Davis and another officer issued 18 tickets for license bracket violations after stopping motorists exiting the same section of freeway.
Joyce Uribie, one of those drivers, called the officers' setup a "speed trap."
"They were pulling everyone over — everyone. And then they were looking for anything else to write you up on," Uribie said.
Uribie, 47, had a bracket that covered a "tiny bit" of the state name on her license plate. She got the fine reduced to $70 but still fumes.
"It's very unfair, and they know it," she said.
Troopers issued far fewer
Craig Ferrell, HPD's deputy director and general counsel, said the department has interpreted the 2003 law as prohibiting motorists from being deceptive. But he said the court's ruling gives officers subjective discretion about citing for brackets.
"Without looking at these (tickets) I can't tell you at all, or even come to a hunch or supposition, as to whether they were, in fact, obscured to the extent that it was a good exercise of discretion," he said.
Departments across the state, including those in Austin and San Antonio, also say they give officers personal discretion to decide how rigorously they enforce the law.
The same policy is in place at the Department of Public Safety, which has 2,400 troopers watching the state's roadways — a few hundred more than Houston's department has on patrol.
State troopers have warned 6,797 motorists about violations since January, but they've issued only 91 citations, said Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman.
Most drivers unaware
Such dealer brackets are a common sight on Houston's roads, though some dealers, such as Gillman Honda, have redesigned them to try to avoid getting their customers into trouble, general manager Rod Hall said.
Some of those customers had no idea, said Michelle Hsu, whose Honda Civic with a Gillman bracket got her cited in February.
"I know that hardly anyone is aware of that law," said Hsu, who sent e-mail warning her friends afterward.
The covers are so common that even the mayor's Lincoln Town Car, driven by Houston police officers in his security detail, could have been cited.
Asked about that bracket, Hurtt quipped: "We have discretion, and we use discretion. In this case, we use discretion."
A few hours later, though, the bracket had been removed.
Such stories anger cited motorists such as Alice Bongers, 59, who also got a ticket after Perry signed the clarifying legislation.
"I'm totally appalled," Bongers said.