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Car licenses again under scrutiny

Troopers' restored program has written several $1,122 tickets

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Published: July 19, 2010, 12:00am

You know who you are, you Clark County dwellers with Oregon license plates on your cars.

o For the legal definition, visit http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=308-99-020.

Listen up. The pendulum is swinging back against you.

Since July 1, two state troopers — their license-cheater program rising alive from the ashes of state funding — have been conducting morning ramp checks along state Highway 14 at Interstate 5, Interstate 205, 164th Avenue and 192nd Avenue.

You may have noticed them.

They’re watching for cars with Oregon plates as their owners leave their Vancouver-area homes for work, and the troopers are taking notes.

As of Friday, Sgt. Randy Hullinger and Trooper Steve Schatzel had handed drivers three $1,122 tickets, for allegedly living in Clark County more than 30 days and still having out-of-state plates on their cars, mostly Oregon plates.

The two Washington State Patrol officers, while watching at those ramps, are building up a new database of possible cheaters’ license numbers from scratch, after a year when their program was cancelled by the Legislature for budget-balancing reasons. Lawmakers restored the funding this year.

Like Santa Claus — or Big Brother, depending on your point of view — the troopers know if you’ve been bad or good, and where you live, just by looking you up in public records.

So be good, for goodness’ sake, the troopers say. And head on down to the Department of Licensing to get Washington plates.

License cheaters have infuriated law-abiding Clark County residents for many years, because the money the cheaters spend for vehicle registration fees and taxes goes to Oregon, depriving Washington of as much as $10 million each year that should be available for public projects that benefit Washingtonians.

“They let everyone else pay for their fair share,” Hullinger said.

It’s a big problem in Clark County, because it’s so easy to get Oregon plates just across the river.

o For the legal definition, visit http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=308-99-020.

But Hullinger and Trooper Schatzel are good fits for the job.

Hullinger worked two years as a WSP detective going after Clark County residents who commit deliberate license fraud to avoid sales-and-use taxes and fees. These folks typically buy cars or motor homes in Oregon and give salespeople bogus addresses, claiming they live in Oregon. That’s a gross misdemeanor crime that can mean stiff fines if you’re found guilty.

As for Schatzel, he operated the license cheater unit for five years before its funding was cancelled as of July 2009.

Early this year, state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, persuaded lawmakers to restore the program, which brought in far more money than it cost. Rep. Jim Jacks, D-Vancouver, was a co-sponsor.

In 2008, the program brought in $647,000 in revenue and cost only $250,000, officials said. This year, the license cheater program was given $325,000 per year to operate beginning July 1 — and officials hope to bring in far more money than that.

Last week, Hullinger said he had more than 600 leads to possible licensing violators, and he and Schatzel are working them.

Trained volunteers to help

The next step, in the next several weeks, will bring back four of the trained civilian volunteers who went after license cheaters in the old days. Sitting at computer stations at WSP headquarters just south of state Highway 500 near Orchards, the volunteers will check records to see if the owner of a car seen with Oregon plates lives in Clark County.

Those records include vehicle and voter registration, public utility accounts, hunting and fishing licenses, property ownership and being on state benefit rolls.

Once the volunteers determine that a driver lives in Clark County, they send out postcards to the driver’s home, warning that he or she may be in violation, and asking them to buy Washington license plates or risk a fine.

Those post cards, sent out by the thousands in the old days, and other contacts by troopers persuaded license cheaters to get legal in about 40 percent of the cases, officials have said.

No hot line yet

Hullinger and Schatzel plan soon to provide a hot line number that neighbors can call to report license cheaters — but not until the volunteers are back on the job.

“Without the volunteers, we just can’t deal with the sheer volume of tips that will come in,” Hullinger said.

Besides Trooper Schatzel and himself, Hullinger said, he hopes regular road-patrol troopers also will pull over license cheaters, and that officers with other law-enforcement agencies here will help as well.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.

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