ST. LOUIS — Expired license plates seem to be everywhere, and some of them belong to people in positions of power.
St. Louis’ 9th Ward Alderman Dan Guenther drives a pickup truck with tags that expired in 2019.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s Chief of Staff Cal Harris drives a car with expired license plates from out-of-state.
And that annoys residents like Andrew Polacek, who lives in Guenther’s ward.
“You can’t expect a normal citizen to particularly do the right thing if you can’t see your leaders doing the right thing,” he said.
Area police departments tell the I-Team enforcement of improper license plates is down. For some it’s intentional, and for others, it’s related to the pandemic.
Guenther declined multiple requests for an interview but told the I-Team he can’t get his plates renewed because he can’t get the parts he needs to fix the truck so it will pass an inspection.
The I-Team found the truck parked outside the Broadway Athletic Club as well as the alderman’s house.
Harris was hired as Page’s chief of staff in January. Page’s spokesman, Doug Moore, said Harris had his car shipped to St. Louis from Maryland in mid-March and “is in the process of getting it licensed in Missouri.” Moore said it is a leased vehicle, so he is waiting on an out-of-state title request from Volvo, and hoped to have it by May 22.
On Thursday, Moore said he was unable to confirm whether Harris got his plates in order because Harris was on a trip with a group of other leaders who took a flight aboard Luftansa airlines.
Enforcement is down
The I-Team visited about a dozen random parking lots in St. Louis and St. Louis County and found expired tags at every one.
Polacek sees them, too.
“I have to pay taxes, I don't like paying taxes, but I do it because if I don't, I get pulled over and I get a ticket,” he said.
Guenther told the I-Team he has paid at least one ticket for his expired plates.
The number of tickets for improper and expired tags has been going down throughout the St. Louis area.
St. Charles County:
- 2019: 1,099
- 2020: 702
- 2021: 851
St. Louis County:
- 2019: 10,270
- 2020: 4,842
- 2021: 5,846
- 2019: 3,677
- 2020: 2,733
- 2021: 1,927
St. Louis City:
- 2019: 6,172
- 2020: 2,922
- 2021: 4,439
Police leaders have different takes on why enforcement on the issue is down.
In Jefferson County, Capt. Nick Forler said there were simply fewer cars on the road during the height of the pandemic.
“As we look at this year, it seems like we're on pace to kind of pick back up,” he said. “So it seems to be a little bit more consistent with the way it was pre-COVID, which is probably a reason that some of those numbers have decreased through the years 2021 and so on.”
In St. Louis City, Public Safety Director Dan Isom wouldn’t comment about Guenther’s expired plates.
He said the city’s number of tickets are down because it is a matter of priorities.
“It's not the primary reason that we're pulling over people in cars because we have a limited amount of resources and time,” he said. “If we were to completely enforce that, we wouldn't have time to do the other things that are very important as well.
“So we've instructed officers to enforce it as a secondary violation.”
Polacek said he understands why enforcement is down.
“I'm not really blaming the police or anything like that because it's complicated, but it's just frustrating because somebody in power should be held to a higher level, a higher standard,” he said. “They should be at a higher bar because you're a role model, and whether you're a teacher, or a priest, or a politician, a CEO, if you can't be at the higher bar, why should anyone else?”
What about those temporary tags?
In addition to expired license plate tags, temporary tags also don the back bumpers of countless cars throughout Missouri.
They’re handed out whenever someone buys a car.
They give car buyers about 30 days to pay their sales taxes at the Department of Motor Vehicles in exchange for permanent plates.
For years, however, people have not been paying those sales taxes and taking their chances driving around with expired temporary tags hoping to avoid getting a ticket.
And, should they get one, the fines are still cheaper than the sales taxes.
A new law took effect in January allowing car buyers to pay their sales taxes at the point of sale.
The Missouri Department of Revenue doesn’t have any estimates on just how much money the state has lost out on in unpaid sales taxes, nor does it know how many temporary tags and expired license plates are out there.
However about $4.8 million has come in since the passage of the new law to cut down on the temporary tags.
The money is going into a fund known as the Motor Vehicle Administration Technology Fund to pay for a system that could cost anywhere between $50 to $100 million to put an end to temporary tags once-and-for-all.
“The DOR does track the issuance of temporary permits, but can’t systematically track misuse of expired temporary permits,” according to a statement from Anne Marie Moy, spokeswoman for the Department of Revenue. “The department does have methods to issue delinquent fee notices where it appears the purchaser of a vehicle has failed to title and pay associated tax. The department is not a law enforcement agency, and as such the department does not issue tickets for failure to register motor vehicles.”
A request for proposals for a system to end the issuance of temporary license plates closed March 31, she said.