FRIENDSWOOD

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.”

Aaron West: 409-683-5246; aaron.west@galvnews.com

Reporter

(26) comments

Jon Babara

Friendswood PD harassing citizens everyday !

Albert S. Gonzales

Sounds like Friendswood PD doing their job. The difference is that the family complied with the police instructions. Yes, I am positive, it was a scary situation but let's face it, that is something that does not happen everyday to an innocent family.

David Doe

Who keeps your OLD plate and transfers it to a different car? I would think that is Illegals too.

Albert S. Gonzales

David Doe, Let me ask you, have your purchased a special plate for your car and a short time later traded that car in? Check out the price of those plates?

Ma Gill

With personalized plates, it's the only way to keep the custom plate number.
We've done this every time we've sold an American car in the last 30 years.

David Doe

My wife has personalized plates and we have Never transferred plates from 1 can to another. It's Illegal. Just for the record I called TXDOT for clarification. It's Illegal to transfer plates so I was told.

Ashley Clarke

My husband and I have had personalized plates since 2012 and they have been transferred to 6 different vehicles we have purchased all done by the dealership. We did purchase and pay for them to be ours until 2022 then will be able to renew to keep them again for 10 years more. We purchased through myplates.com. The transfer is done with the initial purchase they take a copy of your plate and then the tax office assigns that plate to your new vehicle. So it is not illegal and you were misinformed by TXDOT.

Robert Ray

David Doe, you really need to go back and learn how to do research before you shoot your mouth off. I got the following from the TXDOT website which directly contradicts your "call to TXDOT". Perhaps you don't know how to ask the question or didn't understand the answer, but here it is for you in the cheap seats:
https://www.txdmv.gov/motorists/license-plates
It is simple and free to transfer your license plates to your new vehicle. The TxDMV encourages you to transfer your plates because it protects you. Your local county tax assessor-collector's office will assist with the transfer and issue you a new registration sticker for your vehicle.
You may transfer your plates:
Between vehicles you own. Your local county tax assessor-collector’s office will issue a new registration sticker for your vehicle.
To a vehicle purchased from a dealer. Remove the plates and request that the dealer transfer the plates to the new vehicle.
To a vehicle purchased from a private party. Register the plates with your local county tax assessor-collector office when you title the vehicle in your name.
To a leased vehicle.
From a vehicle titled jointly to a vehicle titled in your name alone. If your name has not changed.
Be sure to remove the registration sticker on your old vehicle when you take off the plates.
Note:
General issue plates may be transferred to passenger vehicles and trucks weighing one ton or less.

Van Jones

People who pay extra for personalized plates.

Donna Fraley

While very unfortunate what happened to this family, let this be an example of how you act when you get pulled over (felony stop or not) by the police! Follow directions, COMPLY and you will NOT get shot or have any issues. Please teach your children and loved ones this very simple rule!

Emile Pope

That’s not always a guarantee so don’t imply that it is....

Lisa Blair

absolutely. And we don't impose the death penalty for noncompliance. Guns drawn for a stolen car? Is that the procedure for most PDs?

Randy Chapman

Yes. It's called a felony stop. And as stated, follow instructions and nothing bad will come of it. Now, if you get out and act like some do, protesting their rights and not complying, things will probably not go well for you. It's really very simple.

Emile Pope

Manafort was arrested for a felony and no guns were drawn on him. So was Madoff. Aiming a firearm at someone not a threat and only suspected of a crime makes no sense...

Carlos Ponce

Felony or High Risk Vehicle Stops:
http://www.adsecpros.com/articles/Felony%20or%20High%20Risk%20Vehicle%20Stops.pdf
Not the same thing. As Emile puts it - "False Equivalence".

Robert Ray

Complying with the Police is always safer than not complying. That is guaranteed. So don't imply that it isn't.
And before I hear you complain about your rights, let me say this... Your rights can always be defended in a courtroom. Your safety cannot. In today's climate of dash cams and body cams and phone cams, the odds that a traffic stop is about abusing someone's rights are slim and the evidence of such abuse is readily available should it actually happen. Better to comply and be around later to straighten out any abuse or misunderstandings than to put lives in danger by not complying.

Ma Gill

Friends, EVERY time you sell a car, you should file Texas DMV form VTR-346 informing the state you no longer own the car. It's available online (just Google it).

Do NOT believe the dealer when they say they'll take care of the title, or you'll end up like Jerome Karam - or worse, dead. The form also helps prevent any legal liability in case someone has a wreck or commits a crime in the car when it's still registered in your name.

Charles Wiley

Some believe, rather naively, that all stolen cars are simply kids taking a joy ride. Poor souls don’t understand that in far too many cases there is an underlying crime that has been or is about to be committed. These same naive among us don’t understand the enormous cost of auto theft (look at our insurance rates). Cadillac Escalades are among the most often stolen vehicles. Auto theft is a serious crime in many different ways and for many different reasons. Well trained police officers know how to safely handled these situations and it sounds like Friendswood PD did just that. I'm sorry that family was frightened but Friendswood is a safer place becuse of those officers, no question about it and those who believe this practice should be abolished just dont know what they’re talking about and have not thought this through. Kudos to Friendswood PD and all of our officers who talke risks to protect those who don’t understand and others who don’t care. Our officers will protect you in spite of your ignorance. Others among us will work to explain to you that which you don’t understand or care about and we’ll do that as we go along and on a case by case basis.

Robert Braeking

"seven officers involved in the felony stop followed protocol correctly" Really? I have found that the police are trained to lack common sense. Back in the day we used to walk to the back of the vehicle and have a conversation. Now if you get out of the car you are subject to getting shot. The police find that they have a difficult time gaining the public's trust and cooperation. I wonder why?

Robert Ray

Have you been trained as a police officer? Have you ridden with an officer on a ride along program? Have you been hiding under a rock for the past 20 years as times changed? The DMV records showed that the plates on the vehicle belonged to a stolen vehicle that had been missing for several months. If it had been kids joyriding, it would have been ditched after about 24 hours. So that leaves much more serious reasons for stolen vehicles likely for the report. The kind of reasons that often involves large quantities of drugs and guns with which to protect said drugs. Or worse. These are the things that run through an officer's mind. That and a strong desire that at the end of his or her shift, everyone gets to go home to their family. So *common sense* dictates that the situation be handled in such a way that the subject of the stop would realize that any potential violence the subject might consider would be foolhardy and potentially hazardous to their own health, leaving only compliance with the police as the most reasonable course of action.
Now you have asked why its such a problem that police no longer allow a traffic stop subject to get out of their vehicle and have a conversation at the back of the vehicle and I will tell you the reasons are many. First, it is unsafe to the motorist having been pulled over. This is especially true on highways and congested streets where the risk of serious and/or fatal injury as a pedestrian can be very high. Second, it is unsafe to the officer. In today's climate of civil disobedience and high crime, the number of officers who have been shot or even just beaten on what they thought were just routine traffic stops has been on the increase. Third, some people use the action of getting out of their vehicle as a method of disguising that they were breaking the law in some form or fashion, the most common law being that of wearing a seatbelt. Now granted, this one is pretty trivial, but there are other things the officer gains by having you remain in your vehicle, including being able to get you on your way more quickly. No cop wants to draw out a traffic stop any longer than he has to.

George Croix

Good job by the family complying with Police orders first and asking questions second. Pretty classy on their part imo.
The usual race baiters and Police haters aside, this is how you handle such situations for a good ending. They have a tough job, are human so not perfect, but will sort things out if the suspects will just keep mouth shut and ears open and go from there as instructed.

Lois J Carelock

[thumbup] Chief Wiley!

Tina Clifton

This was not a job of Friendswood police offers doing their job. Anyone who lives in Friendswood and surrounding areas know this family, and know the plates. The thought of experiencing an episode like this is horrifying. Shame on the Friendswood police department. There's no justification for their behavior.

Robert Ray

I just want to say this. In today's police cruiser, there is a computer that connects the cruiser and the officer to various databases and even (in at least some if not all cases) the internet. This allows the officer to "run the plates" on a vehicle before initiating a traffic stop. In this case, the plates were ran and the officer was notified of a stolen vehicle.In the days before computers were in the police cruisers, all of this would have been done by radio, but the result, in this case, would likely have been the same thing. The stolen vehicle "flag" on the plates was not something that was initiated from within the Friendswood Police Department, but rather by the State of Texas and the report came out of a jurisdiction in North Texas. It could have just as easily happened in another jurisdiction such as Galveston, Texas City, Kemah, League City or Houston (oh yeah, that would have been much more terrifying, a felony stop on a reported "stolen vehicle" in Houston...). This particular stop could have been initiated by Texas DPS, Galveston County Sheriff's Office or Friendswood PD. To be honest, if a vehicle with plates identifying it as "stolen" had not been pulled over, THEN FPD would be failing to do their job. And yes, a stolen vehicle is grounds for a "felony stop" as FPD officers initiated.

George Croix

[thumbup]
Yep.
Personally, I'd like to see the 'no need to draw a gun' bunch be tasked with approaching a car that has been stopped because it's been reported stolen.
I suspect the need for Depends might be imminent in such a case....

Albert S. Gonzales

Tina Clifton you must live in the same area as that family. Perhaps you and other neighbors know the "plates" but Friendswood is a city that is spread out. Not everyone knows that family or their "plates" So before you become the judge and jury you need to ride with some of the police officers and see what real life is like for them and the job they do. They were doing their job.

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