AUSTIN (KXAN) - A driver was pulled over and nearly arrested for displaying a Texas state vehicle inspection sticker she said had been altered by someone else.
Debbie Sharp said she believed a local garage mechanic made his own version of a number on the state-issued sticker all drivers are required to post on their windshields -- and she's the one who caught the heat for it.
"I'm angry. And I was embarrassed when I was pulled over," Sharp told KXAN. "Because the first thing the officer had to think was I did it."
Sharp moved to Austin from North Carolina late last year and had her car inspected in February. The required safety sticker was affixed to her windshield beneath her blue Texas registration sticker. And she didn't give either a second look, she said.
Vehicle inspections are required for the safety of all drivers and to make sure no vehicle is spewing high levels of emissions. That's why it's illegal to have fake or doctored inspection sticker on your car's windshield.
The altered sticker was an easy catch for the experienced Cedar Park police officer who stopped Sharp in August.
"When I first saw it, it just didn't look anywhere near normal to what most of them look like," said Cedar Park Police Officer Waylan Adams.
So what was so wrong with the sticker? The number 4, representing the year 2014 when the sticker expires, is open at the top. The alteration is obvious when compared with the 4 that's printed by the state.
"It looks like they cut several numbers up to make the number 4," surmised Adams.
He said that kind of tampering could bring an offender a class B misdemeanor bringing a six-month jail sentence or a $2,000 fine.
Adams let Sharp let off with a warning and instructions to have the sticker replaced within 30 days.
"Why they did it, I don't know, but they don't need to do it to somebody else," Sharp said.
Pep Boys' explanation
KXAN asked the service manager at the North Austin Pep Boys store for an explanation. But he would only examine the altered sticker without cameras present and referred a reporter to the head office.
KXAN repeatedly requested Pep Boys' corporate office in Philadelphia for an interview about what happened, if any internal investigations or discipline were carried out. In emails, KXAN asked if Pep Boys was reviewing hiring and training policies. Their brief response did not address the majority of our questions.
'The Department of Public Safety has confirmed Pep Boys did in fact perform a valid state inspection on Ms. Sharp's vehicle," said Pep Boys spokeswoman Lizbeth Galantino. "There were no Pep Boys employees terminated, and Ms. Sharp received a refund."
To better understand how the inspection process should work, KXAN visited the owner of a separate, independent garage. The sticker books and numbers are kept locked up, and only state-certified inspection staff are granted access.
"When you're doing this inspection, you're working for the state, said John McIver, who operates Shades of Texas in Cedar Park. It's a glass-tinting business that also offers state vehicle inspections. McIver said he's been in the vehicle inspection business for nearly 25 years.
Those who work for him must take, at minimum a four-hour state-run course and take part in hands-on training.
An 'obvious' difference
When showed a photo of Sharp's altered sticker, McIver said: "Oh yeah. Something like that, it's real obvious. Those numbers are (supposed to be) uniform. They've been that way since the (state) started (issuing) them."
Without firm answers from Pep Boys, McIver could only speculate why anyone would even alter a sticker if they weren't selling fake ones.
"To alter the number, maybe they were out of numbers, just to do that for the right customer. I can't see any real benefit of altering a 4," he said, agreeing it was a sloppy solution.
McIver said most of the altered stickers he sees are counterfeit stickers themselves, not one where a single number's been hand-made.
After Sharp complained to DPS, its vehicle inspection team visited the North Austin Pep Boys, and issued a notice of corrective action. DPS said the investigation determined the altered sticker did not rise to a criminal level.
Spokesman Tom Vinger said the worker involved told investigators he didn't know altering a sticker was wrong. Someone caught producing fake inspection stickers would face a third-degree felony in Texas.
With the refund money Pep Boys gave her, Sharp is back on the road, with a new sticker she got at another inspection station.
"I find myself looking at every inspection sticker now," she said.
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