During their Monday, Nov. 14, meeting, Gonzales County commissioners voted to approve an order that would allow certain county vehicles to bear general issue license plates and not have descript markings.
The vote didn’t come, however, until after some intense dialogue between Precinct 2 Commissioner Donnie Brzozowski and County Attorney Paul Watkins.
Watkins’ chief investigator, John Brumme, was seeking to have a general issue plate placed on his Tahoe. Sheriff Keith Schmidt also has some vehicles — used for investigations as well as for transporting cadets to the law enforcement academy — that would need general issue plates without markings.
According to Section 721.005 of the Texas Transportation Code, the county commissioners court can issue an order which exempts having standard Texas exempt license plates on certain vehicles as long as they are being used to perform an official duty by the sheriff’s office, constable’s office, criminal district attorney’s office, district attorney’s office, county attorney's office, magistrate, county fire marshal's office, medical examiner or a juvenile probation department vehicle used to transport children. These vehicles are allowed to have general-issue plates that are still considered to be tax exempt.
Vehicles that cannot be issued general plates must have standard exempt plates and the vehicle must have the name of the count and title of the department in a different color from the body of the vehicle in such a way as to be “plainly legible at a distance of not less than 100 feet.”
“I can see where the sheriff’s department would need unmarked cars when they have to investigate, but I don’t know about the rest of the people,” Brzozowski said Monday, Nov. 14.
“As we told you last time, the reason that the county attorney would like their vehicle not marked is because we transport victims to court on a regular basis,” Watkins said. “Those victims do not want us showing up to their front door in a county attorney vehicle. Some of them are testifying in those very drug cases that you're talking about. And they sure don’t want to broadcast that to the community.
“It's primarily a sheriff issue, I agree with you, but there are other vehicles and the county attorney has at least one vehicle that we would like to be exempt from also.”
“I would think everybody would know who he is when he drives up in a small community like Gonzales,” Brzozowski responded. “I don't think that matters much, because they know who it is when he drives up. Plus, it might be a benefit. Somebody drives up, they don't think it's a drug person driving up — they know who it is. It might be beneficial.”
“It’s not necessarily in this community. It's San Antonio, San Marcos, Austin, that I pick up these victims and witnesses as well. And you know, as well as I do, crime is a lot higher in those cities than it is here in Gonzales,” Brumme said.
Asked how often he picks up people in other cities, Brumme said “at least two or three a year, if not more.
“All it takes is that one, and it might be someone high up on the cartel list that is coming to testify here in Gonzales and I go to pick them up in San Antonio, they are a target at that point,” Brumme added.
Brzozowski noted that “when we gave the county attorney their car and the emergency management theirs, the agreement was they would put stickers on so they’d be more, you know, people would know more that they were out there.”
“I’ve already stated my case. It was all fine and dandy when we gave the vehicles out to mark them for the visibility of the public and now it’s getting changed back around,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Kevin La Fleur said.
“It goes both ways and I can see where you want visibility, you want everybody to see, you want to make your presence known,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Collie Boatright said. “But then as the sheriff and county attorney said, there are instances where you don't want to be known. I agree with both sides of that.”
“I think what we ought to do is just do the sheriff’s office on this and leave the rest of them like it is. That’s what my opinion is to let the sheriff handle his cars the way he wants to and leave the rest of them like it is,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Del Whiddon said.
La Fleur asked if the commissioners could just pick which departments they wished out of the list to have exempt, unmarked cars, but Brumme said “I don’t think that’s how the law is meant and I don’t think you have that decision.”
Watkins added, “I didn’t read it as pick and choose.”
County Tax Assessor-Collector Crystal Cedillo told commissioners “the problem stems from when the county purchases the vehicle, and you have to come to our office to register the vehicle, and you present us with the form VTR 119. We're at a loss because we don't have the court order.”
Brzozowski then said “the only reason we're sitting here discussing this is because of Paul’s and (Emergency Management Coordinator) Jimmy (Harless). And Jimmy’s has already gotten solved, but we haven’t gotten yours solved yet.”
“I still have a problem with the idea that we're going to send the vehicle over and picked up some young lady is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Watkins said.
La Fleur asked if the county attorney was only picking up people two or three times a year, then “why can't you just call the sheriff and ask to borrow an unmarked vehicle for the day?”
“What if the sheriff is busy with his cars?” Watkins asked. “This is really simple guys. It just doesn't make sense to be digging a hole here. There are times when there are victims involved. There's not a ton of times but we should still don't want to be explaining to somebody’s mother or father why they were caught in the middle of this gunfire, even if they don't get hurt!”
“If you’re that worried about gunfire, you need to have the sheriff escort you over there,” Brzozowski told Watkins.
“My investigator is a master peace officer and carries a weapon,” Watkins replied.
A clearly exasperated Cedillo told commissioners “I have to go by the code. When you come to my office, I have to go by that code. There are specifics when we pull it up in the system, we have to go by which one it is and they’re all in there.
“The other surrounding counties have this order in place and it’s been in place for quite a few years in the surrounding counties. This is nothing new,” she added. “I just need to know for titling purposes, if there's an order in place, and what do I do with that titling paperwork when I get it. I just need to be clear on what the court wants.”
Boatright said “I believe it should be up to the discretion of the elected official. I would hate for you to pull up in a marked vehicle and put someone in jeopardy off the decision that I made not knowing the situation that you're in.”
Asked by the Inquirer how long it would take to get an attorney general’s opinion about the law, Watkins said the last time he asked for an opinion it took “six months and that would be six months then we would be out of compliance.”
“The question you need to ask is why not? Why not?” Watkins told commissioners. “Maybe it's three times a year. Do you want to take that chance? That's exactly what you're saying?”
Cedillo then noted that there are two different options that come into play on the VTR 119. If the applicant selects county, they must have the court order to allow the general issue license plate. If the applicant selects law enforcement, they do not need a court order. She said Watkins’ office had applied for and received plates for the Tahoe under law enforcement just recently so they could be sure to be in compliance with the law.
Brzozowski then expressed disbelief the court was having the discussion if Watkins had already applied for a plate under law enforcement.
“What choice did we have? Drive around a vehicle illegally?” Watkins asked.
“Put an exempt plate on it, like you had before,” Brzozowski replied.
“See, now we get to the why not? Because you don’t want it that way. Because you’re mad at me,” Watkins said.
“That’s neither here nor there. If you’ve already got the plate, I don’t know why we’re sitting around talking about it,” Brzozowski said.
After a few more minutes, commissioners did agree to approve the order without any further disagreement.