Ticket Trouble

HIDALGO - The city of Hidalgo has a little known loophole in its traffic citation program. One man has the ability to turn a fine into a warning and it’s not just the municipal judge.

The loophole took CHANNEL 5 NEWS on a 3-month investigation.

A tip came in the form of an anonymous email, but it didn’t say much. It was loaded with images of traffic tickets; tickets originally written as a violation then turned into a warning.

The ticket change was signed off by Hidalgo Police Chief Rudy Espinosa. We wanted to uncover how the ticket trouble started.

Commuters heading to and from Mexico are making fewer stops in the city of Hidalgo and Espinosa took notice. “If you don’t have the traffic, you don’t have the customers,” he said. “It used to be that all these businesses were up and running.”

The wacky, wavy inflatable arm flailing tube man planted on Main Street is doing little to attract business in town. It showed in the boarded up storefronts and “For Lease” signs everywhere. The chief said he knows why.

“Traffic-wise, we were very aggressive as in issuing out citations for just about anything,” Espinosa said.

His theory was simple. Drivers are too afraid of getting pulled over to stop and shop. His solution to the problem was simple. “If it’s in the infantile stages, just issued and we can do something in our end, then we will continue to assist and help out in whatever form or fashion we can,” the chief said.

In layman's terms, if the driver can prove to the chief an officer unfairly gave them a ticket, he will change it to a warning. There would be no need to go to the municipal judge.

In fact, he did it more than 200 times in the last year. One ticket was changed for driving without a license. Another was for speeding in a school zone. A woman was going 42 miles over the speed limit, but the chief cut her some slack.

“We don’t have a quota. We never had a quota,” Espinosa said.

The department wrote more than 4,000 tickets in the last year, but only 200 people got a pass. One of them was Robert Dillard, a city commissioner’s son.

Dillard got a ticket in April for disregarding a stop sign. We asked him how he got the chief to change the ticket to a warning. “Right there, at the school there, is some potholes. I know I made the stop, because there is a big pothole,” he said.

According to the ticket, Dillard was cited for disregarding a stop sign going westbound on the corner of 3rd and Esperanza. He said he stopped because there was a pothole. However when we visited the spot, we couldn’t find signs of potholes.

“I called the chief and told him exactly what happened,” Dillard said. “I told him you can go look and see exactly the pothole. He went and checked and saw the pothole there.”

Texas Penal Codes on traffic citations are vague. There is no specific law that states law enforcement cannot change a ticket after it’s written.

We visited a district attorney, DPS office and a number of justices of peace courts. No one could give a definitive answer. We were told the issuing officer can change a ticket. There was no word if the chief could.

We asked several people if they had any tickets changed. No one seemed aware that the chief was changing tickets. “What’s the catch? Do you have to be his cousin or something,” one man asked.

Espinosa may be changing tickets to allegedly help people, but changing charges isn’t always legal.

About three years ago, the municipal judge in Hidalgo was reprimanded by the state for voiding more than 800 tickets. An officer in Donna went to jail for changing tickets last year. Each were charged with tampering with government documents.

We requested a year’s worth of tickets from three other departments of equal size to Hidalgo. Raymondville, Rio Grande City and Donna all use electronic ticket-writing devices. The devices are similar to the ones DPS uses.

The device sends citations directly to the municipal court, after they’re issued in the field. All three departments have clear police department policies that forbid officers to change tickets after they’re written.

An IPAQ is a handheld ticket machine. Even though it is electronic, it is easy to change a charge of a ticket on the device. An individual, who deals with the electronic ticket device on a daily basis, showed us how easy it would be to make the change. “Hit the edit button and change to a warning,” they said.

They added it would be difficult to catch an officer change the ticket, unless someone was specifically looking for edits every day.

“I always ask the officer, before I change tickets,” Espinosa said.

Hidalgo doesn’t have a ticket-writing policy. The only reason we were able to track the charges changed by the chief is because Hidalgo Police Department uses handwritten tickets. It provided a paper trail.

“We need to gain the trust back from the community,” Espinosa said.

The chief said he likes the handwritten tickets, because they make his actions transparent. He believes ticket troubles could end the problems of a troubled economy.