It was like shooting fish in a barrel for the past few days with officers from the Beaumont, Port Arthur and Groves police departments working together to set up optical license plate reader camera systems throughout the city of Beaumont and stop drivers whose license plates alerted police to outstanding warrants.
There’s no doubt motorists saw an inordinate number of patrol units parked in the middle of major roadways and at busy intersections throughout the city. It was all part of an initiative called the Great Texas Warrant Round-up, and it’s bringing in big bucks for Beaumont. It’s a statewide crackdown on scofflaws who’ve failed to square-up with municipal courts for traffic tickets, parking violations and other types of Class C misdemeanors that have made the transformation from citation to arrest warrant … and it’s working.
In fact, it has worked so well in Beaumont that during the first two days officers cleared up more than $60,000 in outstanding warrants. And over the course of a two-week grace period prior to the round-up, more than $128,000 was brought in.
While the numbers may seem high, it represents only a fraction of the outstanding traffic warrants on the city’s books dating back to 1994. Some of those fines and fees are uncollectable, but officers say they will work to find as many people as possible so they can take care of their business with the city.
According to Beaumont Municipal Court administrator Deanna Davis, there is more than $12 million in uncollected fines and fees owed to the city of Beaumont. She added that because some people may have died, moved to other states or be incarcerated, it is likely the city will never collect all of the money, but the warrant round-up has worked well.
“There are several phases of enforcement, but when they pay you can basically assume that half goes to the state and half goes to the city,” Davis said. “Every year we take in around 40,000 cases; it fluctuates, and we probably have between 800 and 1,000 cases a month that end up as warrants. It is hard to stick a number on it because we are always getting new cases.
“The only grace period was that we were trying to get people in and have them come to court and meet with the judge. They are never arrested when they come to court, but we did have a unit with a license plate reader pulling people over and bringing them to the court.”
Officers hailed the round-up as a huge success, and even some of the people taken into custody weren’t too bummed out by the ordeal.
“I just forgot to take care of it and I should have,” said a man named David, who was waiting on his family to bring a credit card. As he sat at the back of a prisoner transport van, he was very matter-of-fact about what happened.
“It was my fault,” he said. “I am just glad to get it taken care of. I forgot and now I won’t have to worry about it.”
Another gentleman was all smiles as he was being transferred from a patrol car to the transport van. His story was similar to David’s in that he forgot to pay the fine. He didn’t have much else to say but he did offer a warning to those with warrants that they should go take care of what they owe.
Lt. Derrick Fowler, who oversees the Beaumont Police Department’s traffic unit, said officers from throughout Jefferson County did a great job working together to make the round-up happen.
“While we are working on it locally, it isn’t a local program; it is something that other agencies are coming together and doing statewide,” Fowler said. “We are kicking that off and we are doing this so that we can alert the public that we do have these license plate readers now and we will be using them. We also want them to know that we will be working with these other agencies and conducting similar operations in those areas, as well. It has been more successful than we thought.”
The camera systems can read license plates while two vehicles are traveling at a combined speed of 120 mph. They read in both directions and scan about 95 percent of the plates that pass by them.
“It basically recognizes numbers and letters,” said BPD Sgt. Kenneth Karr. “It’s just optical character recognition. It hits the database with the numbers and it is almost instantaneous. If there is a hit, then it sets off an alarm.”
Although the license plate recognition camera systems are primarily used for warrants, they also help locate stolen cars – something that happened on the first day of the round-up.
Fowler said officers got a hit on a stolen car as it passed a unit outfitted with the new systems. He said officers were immediately alerted to the car and pulled it over.“That was one of the first hits we had,” Fowler said. “And when they pulled over the car they also found PCP. We are also alerted to sex offenders, so if we set up near a school and we continue to get an alert from a vehicle being driven by a known sex offender, we know that we need to stop them and find out what they are up to. Now, for a school on Major Drive, which is a major thoroughfare, they may just be going to the store, but we know they are there.”
Like it or not, the license plate reader systems are here to stay, and several Beaumont Police units have been outfitted with them. But unlike Port Arthur patrol units, where the cameras are easily visible on top or at the front and rear of the vehicles, Beaumont’s are more covert. The units have been inset into the grill and body molding of Chevrolet Tahoes and other units to give them a streamlined look so they are almost unnoticeable.
Beaumont Police Chief Jimmy Singletary said he was appreciative of the media alerting the public to what was going on because it will help encourage people to come to municipal court and hopefully influence them to not have problems in the future.
“In a perfect world when someone gets a citation for speeding or a fine in court, it would be great if they would just go and take care of it, but unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world,” Singletary said. “That is why operations like this are needed, and the last two or three days have shown just how successful we’ve been.
“These readers will be on the street every week. We have them on our units, and our officers will be out using them.”
While some cities charge a convenience fee or pass along credit card usage fees to those clearing up tickets and warrants online, that is not the case here. Anyone wanting to get squared-up with Beaumont can do so at no additional charge.
Davis added that she is hopeful that by getting the message out it will help clear up the backlog of cases on the city’s books. She said if someone believes they are innocent, they can talk to the judge. And if they feel the need, they can have a trial.
“Come down and see what we can do with it,” she said. “We try to work with people.”
Davis said the municipal court implemented an Internet payment system last year to allow people with traffic citations and other fines – including warrants – to take care of their problems without coming to court. She said there is no additional fee for the people paying online and it has been a big help. She added that during the warrant round-up a computer terminal was made available for those people who wanted to clear up their warrants on the spot over the computer.
“If your name is on the warrant list, you can pay that online,” she said. “Let’s say you knew you had a ticket and you didn’t want to come down to court or couldn’t make it for some reason. You can just go online; everything can be paid online. We take Visa, Mastercard and Discover and there is no additional fee.”
On average, about $900 is collected each day over the Internet, but on the first day of the round-up that number was up 10-fold, according to Fowler.
“People may say this is about money, but for us this is really about clearing up warrants in the system” Fowler said. “We have some of the best judges in the state, and even if you have warrants, they are not going to send you to jail if you show up and take care of your business.”
Jerry Jordan can be reached at (409) 498-1074, or at jerry [at] theexaminer [dot] com.