Special Report: Paper Tags Exposed! - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

Special Report: Paper Tags Exposed!

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By Lindsey Connell - bio | email | Twitter

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) -  Picture this- you're sitting at a light and the car in front of you has a piece of cardboard instead of a metal license plate. Written in black marker are the words, "Georgia Tag Applied For" and it's bolted down or maybe the handwritten tag is taped to the car.

Many drivers might not have to imagine it because they've seen it firsthand. So have police officers.

"We do see this on a daily basis and each time we do come into contact with a vehicle that has a paper tag and or a homemade tag that says "Tag Applied For" we do actively investigate those incidents to see what's with the registration on that vehicle," said Lieutenant Mark D. Starling who oversees the Columbus Police Department's Motor Squad.

Muscogee County Tax Commissioner Lula Huff says homemade tags are illegal.

Her office registers some 13,000 cars a month.

Huff says if a driver is sporting a cardboard tag more than 30 days after getting the car, they could be trying to tiptoe around the law by not getting a proper title and tag.

Back out on the road, we also found plenty of cars with no tags whatsoever and others with completely blank paper tags from dealerships- all violations of the law according to the Tax Commissioner

Huff says the dealer tags are formatted by law, requiring the dealership to display the month, day and year they expire.

"They must also indicate on the plate what the vehicle is- the model, the make of it, even down to the VIN number," she explained.

So we went to the some dealerships to see if they meet the criteria.

The owner of Columbus Auto Mart off Veterans Parkway says whenever he finishes a deal, the expiration date goes on the paper tag. He says the blank tags we found indicate one of four things: the car is being test driven, the buyer is waiting on loan approval, it's a service loaner car or it was stolen off his lot.

The Vice President of Gil's Auto Sales tells News Leader 9 three out of their four locations are in Alabama where the date strip isn't required. Georgia customers get an expiration date, he says.

Police on both sides of the river say all of these cars are easy targets to spot and stop. No matter what, officers want to see proof of sale.

"These paper tags that have no information on them whatsoever- no date written upon it by the dealer as to when it might have an expiration date- it's an open invitation to be stopped and investigated as to why there's not a tag upon that vehicle," Lt. Starling said.

"If we see a paper tag driving down the road we'll pull it over and check the bill of sale they have," said Sergeant Jeff Freeman with Phenix City Police Department's Motor Squad.

In Phenix City, paper tags have forced the police department to adopt aggressive enforcement. Officials say many are the result of drivers trying to cheat the system and get out of paying taxes.

"The paper tag problem in Phenix City is that everyone has a paper tag. People will go on the car lots and take paper tags and put them on their car or they change the dates that the tag expired. Paper tags are only good for 20 days but people will change the date and make them last longer because they just don't want to go get the tag. They'll get a paper tag off their buddy's car they're not using and put it on their car. We've even had cases in the past where people have changed the date on the bill of sale to extend the life of the paper tag," said Assistant Police Chief Bobby Casteel.

And don't think getting caught won't hit you where it hurts the most: your wallet.

In Russell County, fines for an expired or improper tag are $171. In other cases, it's up to a judge to set the fine, forcing you to make a court appearance and pay court costs on top of that.

In Muscogee County, the fine for not having a state tag is $163 and those ticketed must appear in Recorder's Court with the proper paperwork.

That's not all. Offenders still have to pay to properly register the car with the state.

"They're going to end up paying a penalty on that which is 10% of whatever the tag is. They're opening themselves up for law enforcement to give them a ticket violation. And that incurs more and more costs and when you take that cost and compare it to what it might have been for you to just come in and register your vehicle, you'll probably end up finding out that the fine you will get will be much greater than your initial tag registration would have been," Huff said.

"It's not something we're just going to overlook. It is required that you have a tag upon your vehicle and that your vehicle is properly registered and we will enforce that law," Lt. Starling added.

Police encourage those drivers who have recently purchased a new or used car and have temporary tags, to keep the bill of sale in their car at all times.

If you get pulled over but can still prove that you bought your car within the past 30 days in Georgia or 20 days in Alabama, officials say you won't get a ticket.

But because so many drivers are abusing paper plates, police say they've been cracking down and pulling over cars with temporary tags to check the purchasing paperwork.  

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