Loophole in state law makes temporary car tags untraceable for police

Temporary tag loophole

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It may be like second nature to take down a license plate number or snap a quick picture of it when you see a driver acting suspiciously or doing something out of the ordinary, but what do you do when the plate is a temporary tag, bearing only a handwritten date of expiration in Sharpie marker?

That's the dilemma Columbia handy-man-turned-crime-witness Ralph Bell found himself in.

Ever since Bell saw a burglary happen last fall, he's been pushing for a bill to pass that would close the loophole in the law that makes these tags untraceable and useless to police.

You could call Ralph Bell a 'Good Samaritan.' He recalls working on a project at a home in one Columbia neighborhood last fall when he noticed a man run from the house next door with a duffel bag in hand.

Thinking fast, Bell took photos and captured a picture of the alleged getaway car as he spoke to 911 over the phone. He even followed the car as best he could until he lost the suspects.

According to a report WIS-TV pulled from the Columbia Police Department, a loaded gun, laptops, an Xbox, social security card, and passport were some of the things stolen.

"It kind of brought the reality of what law enforcement goes through which I'm not even trained for and if I had been shot there would have been no- my wife and my children wouldn't have known other than this picture of a paper tag and a silver vehicle," Bell remembers.

Although Bell did snap the photo to document the car, thinking he was helping police to catch the burglars, in the end it wasn't useful because of the type of tag. That's because these temporary plates in South Carolina with only a handwritten date, are not linked to the vehicle identification number (VIN) or owner.

"Our streets, our roadways, all have various cameras and it basically takes them out of the loophole, too," adds Bell.

There's a bill to fix the problem; Senate Bill 1083 would have auto dealers give customers plates that the DMV supplies with a code that links to the VIN.

"There are some dealer tags that are out there, and they appear to be dealer tags but they're actually not dealer tags. And this is a way to ensure that the person who is driving that vehicle is the owner of that vehicle," said bill sponsor Sen. Larry Grooms (R- Charleston).

Bell says without this loophole fix, there could be danger hiding behind paper tags. "How many more people out there are being victimized by you know criminals using these paper tags?" he asks.

This bill needs only the governor's signature to become law.

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