MPD pulled over record number of drivers for expired tags in 2022; 80% are Black

Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 11:39 PM CDT

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A massive backlog at the county clerk’s office has kept drivers from seeking or receiving new tags and license plates in a timely manner for more than a year now. Despite the well-publicized problems, Memphis Police pulled over more drivers for expired tags last year than any of the previous five years.

According to data requested by Action News 5 and analyzed in partnership with DeCarcerate Memphis, more than 23,000 drivers were ticketed for expired tags in 2022; nearly 1,000 more drivers than were pulled over in 2021. And nearly 80% of the drivers were Black.

“When you have an exposure like this that makes everybody increasingly vulnerable, it’s going to flow to the Black community,” said Adam Nelson with DeCarcerate Memphis. “Black people are going to bear the brunt of that.”

DeCarcerate Memphis is a group that works to find solutions to what they call problematic policing.

“Do you think Memphis police are taking advantage of the backlog?” The Investigators asked Nelson.

“That’s what the data shows,” he said.

Action News 5 has covered the backlog at the clerk’s office for more than a year now. Clerk Wanda Halbert has blamed the long lines and long waits on a lack of resources, lack of manpower and the extra workload that came with Tennessee issuing new license plates for the first time in nearly a decade.

However, Shelby County Government officials, including the mayor, blame Halbert for the issues plaguing her office, and have even called for her resignation.

Memphis Police said in June 2022 that despite the publicized problems that Shelby County drivers were having getting their tags renewed, the department would continue pulling over people for expired tags.

Action News 5 uncovered that MPD didn’t just continue pulling over drivers, they increased their enforcement.

Memphis police
Memphis police(Action News 5)

“Well, I don’t blame the law enforcement agencies for what’s happening, " said Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. “I think it’s all [Clerk Halbert’s] responsibility.”

Harris has sent letters to Halbert asking her to fix the issues in her office or resign.

“There are so many simple things that the clerk could do to stop this from occurring and stop the real chaos that this is driving in the lives of motorists across the entire county,” he said.

One of the “simple” things Mayor Harris wants is for Clerk Halbert to keep the doors open at the Poplar Plaza location. Harris says it’s the busiest, and one of three locations in danger of closing because Halbert hasn’t renewed their leases.

“I think a lot of people’s patience has worn thin after seeing this nightmare unfurl before our eyes,” said Mayor Harris. “Seemingly to no end.”

With seemingly no end in sight, Action News 5 and DeCarcerate Memphis also looked into what happens once drivers ticketed for expired tags get to court.

We found that not only were Black drivers pulled over the most, once in court their fines were higher than white drivers: they received more $50 fines than white drivers’ $25 fines. Hispanic drivers received even higher fines: $75.

Three Memphis judges hear traffic cases. Action News 5 investigators went to Chief Jayne Chandler’s courtroom to see how the process works, but were denied access - even without a camera.

When Judge Chandler called to apologize for turning us away, she agreed to an interview, and to let us record in a courtroom. Over the next two weeks, that didn’t happen, so we sent her questions instead.

Judge Chandler wrote that expired tag fines are capped at $50 by the state, so higher fines meant there were more violations written on the driver’s ticket.

She also said cases are dismissed if the person shows up for court.

We also sent several emails to Memphis Police for their response to the data uncovered in our investigation, but they failed to reply.

A new ordinance passed by city council in April prevents Memphis police from pulling over drivers solely for tags that are less than 60 days expired.

“60 days is not enough in those conditions and we clearly can’t rely on the police to exercise their own discretion and compassion for the people of Memphis,” said Nelson.

“There are lots of issues and we keep working on this, hopeful that the county clerk will take these issues seriously and do something differently,” said Mayor Harris.

We emailed Clerk Halbert to get her response but didn’t hear back.

DeCarcerate Memphis says the Tyre Nichols Ordinances that passed City Council in April are a start, but they want to disband all specialized units and outsource traffic enforcement to an agency other than law enforcement.

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