Confusion surrounding a stolen vehicle’s license plate led to Friendswood police officers pulling over an innocent family with guns drawn last month, and officials have concerns the same situation could happen again to others.
Jerome Karam, a Friendswood attorney and developer who owns the Mall of the Mainland in Texas City and who is redeveloping the former Falstaff Brewery in Galveston, among other properties, was driving home from dinner at a local restaurant with his wife and son in late August when city police officers pulled him over for driving a possibly stolen vehicle.
The officers, guns drawn, had Karam and his son get out of the vehicle and kneel down on the pavement with their hands locked behind their heads, Karam said. Karam’s wife, who called 911 because the family thought they were being assaulted by criminals impersonating law enforcement, was told to get out of the vehicle and slowly walk backward toward the officers.
But Karam’s vehicle — a 2018 Cadillac Escalade — wasn’t stolen.
“It was horrible and I’ve since calmed down, but it just spiraled out of control,” Karam said, noting that he hasn’t filed a complaint against the police department and doesn’t think the stop was out of line. “It was traumatic — imagine police officers with their guns out telling you through an intercom to back away from your vehicle. I thought I was about to get shot.”
Friendswood police Chief Bob Wieners acknowledged that Karam’s vehicle, a 2018 Cadillac Escalade, wasn’t stolen and the situation was an unfortunate misunderstanding. But he said the seven officers involved in the felony stop followed protocol correctly.
“When we stop someone for driving what we suspect to be a stolen vehicle, then it’s a felony stop,” Wieners said. “You take the suspects out at gunpoint.”
The problem, Wieners explained, arose because of a license plate mix-up stemming from a rash of 48 unsolved vehicle thefts in North Texas that occurred over the past year and a half. And even though Karam’s situation was resolved with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and his 2018 Escalade no longer registers as possibly stolen, there are dozens of others vehicles that could possibly land their drivers in the same type of situation, Wieners said.
“This could have gone way worse,” Karam said. “One wrong move or word in a stop like this could end with someone getting executed in the street.”
Wieners explained the way the license plate mix-up happened like this: Karam’s vehicle had been flagged as stolen because of a specialty license plate he’d transferred from an old vehicle he traded in. That old vehicle — a 2016 Cadillac Escalade — had been stolen from Carvana, a used car lot in Blue Mound in February, and reported stolen to the Blue Mound Police Department in June.
But when Blue Mound Police Department reported the theft to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, Karam’s specialty license plate — legitimately registered to his 2018 Escalade — also was mistakenly connected to the stolen 2016 vehicle.
“The plates were the same,” Wieners said. “There should be something in the DMV system that doesn’t allow a license plate to be ascribed to two vehicles, but there was some kind of gap.”
Texas Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Adam Shaivitz said the agency’s system doesn’t allow plates to be registered to two vehicles, but couldn’t immediately comment on Karam’s case, he said.
Blue Mound Police Department’s Lt. Kris Taylor, confirming the agency is investigating the 48 vehicles reported stolen from the Carvana car lot, described Karam’s situation as “unfortunate.”
Taylor, who said the thefts have resulted in a loss of more than $1.5 million for Carvana, placed the blame with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. The department hadn’t separated the 2016 stolen vehicle’s Vehicle Identification Number from the transferred specialty plate, he said.
“(Karam’s) previous vehicle is one of the ones that was stolen and the DMV didn’t disassociate the plate,” he said, declining to comment further on an ongoing investigation, except to add that the Blue Mound agency hadn’t heard of any other situations like Karam’s.
If anyone else traded in an old vehicle to the Carvana lot and kept their old plate, they could end up facing the same situation that Karam did, Wieners said, noting that such a situation would be more likely to happen with someone who had a specialty plate.
“These are high-risk police stops,” Wieners said. “There’s at least three dozen vehicles out there that could be just waiting to ruin someone’s day.”