IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — More than 3,200 license plates issued to local, state and federal agencies have a designation that allows them to avoid tickets from Iowa traffic cameras, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.
A recent speeding incident involving Gov. Terry Branstad's state SUV inadvertently revealed how cities give a break to some government vehicles caught on red-light and speed cameras, which are increasingly being used to enforce traffic laws and generate revenue. Several cities said they would not issue tickets to the drivers of Branstad's or some other government vehicles that have a special designation in which their plates are not in police databases.
Iowa Department of Transportation data requested by the AP under public records law shows that more than 350 agencies have been issued at least one license plate with that designation, which is supposed to be for undercover or sensitive work.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources leads the way with 210, the Des Moines Police Department has 170, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation has 151, and the Iowa State Patrol has 140, according to the transportation department. A wide array of governments — out-of-state police forces who occasionally work in Iowa, a county hospital, the Iowa Lottery and federal agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration and Social Security Administration — also have been issued those plates.
Iowa law requires publicly owned vehicles to have plates that are marked "official," but it carves out exemptions for some government workers who do not want to be easily identified. Those include police officers, narcotics agents, lottery employees transporting tickets, economic development officials and some health workers. Those employees can be issued ordinary-looking license plates, which are kept out of police databases to make it harder for anyone to query plate records.
But the "not on file" status has an unintended perk. Cities that bring in millions in revenue from traffic cameras — including Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City and Council Bluffs — do not cite vehicles that fall in that category, which also includes plates that don't match the vehicles driven and plates that are so old they aren't in the computer system. Cities could call the Department of Transportation to check the owner of a government vehicle or an old plate, but officials in those cities say they do not take that step.
"If they are not on file, there's nothing we do," said Cedar Rapids Police Sgt. Cristy Hamblin, whose city has issued more than $2 million in tickets this year.
Lt. Rob Hansen, spokesman for Iowa Department of Public Safety, which includes the highway patrol and Division of Criminal Investigation, said it is a break that his department doesn't want.
"If one of our cars has an issue, send us the stuff, we'll take care of it," he said.
Hansen said the patrol has fewer unmarked vehicles than the data suggests after it recently took steps "to provide a more robust visual presence on the roadway system." He said its fleet manager will contact the DOT to remove more than 30 plates from the not-on-file designation because their vehicles now display official plates.
The data doesn't reflect the total number of vehicles, because some may have more than one plate that isn't on file. Agencies also aren't required to tell DOT when they stop using the plates.
DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins said its numbers are high because vehicles for game wardens have two plates with that designation. One includes the officer's badge number — such as C35 — and is routinely used. The other is an ordinary plate that is put on when they conduct investigative work, such as looking for hunting or fishing violations, he said.
The data shows little uniformity in which agencies get plates and how many. The Department of Corrections' 6th Judicial District, which includes parole and probation services in six counties around Cedar Rapids, has 38. The 5th Judicial District, which serves Des Moines and 16 counties, has seven.
The overall number — 3,218 — is a tiny fraction out of the 4 million registered vehicles in Iowa. Still, critics who argue that traffic cameras infringe on personal liberty have seized on the news.
Aleksey Gurtovoy of Stop Big Brother, a group that successfully lobbied Iowa City to ban traffic cameras last month, said it undermines claims by supporters of photo enforcement who argue that removing the human element leads to a fairer system.
"In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true: substituting a human witness for a machine makes it easier to both silently 'game' the system and get away with it," Gurtovoy wrote in an email.
The data comes amid continuing fallout from an April 26 speeding incident in which a trooper driving Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds was clocked driving 84 mph by another trooper but wasn't stopped. Responding officers were confused during the pursuit because the vehicle's plate wasn't on file.
The Department of Public Safety is investigating the actions of the two troopers. A third investigator involved, DCI Special Agent in Charge Larry Hedlund, was placed on administrative leave May 1, days after he filed an internal complaint in which he warned that the governor's speed compromised safety. Hedlund's attorney contends his removal from duty was retaliation, but the agency says it is investigating potential rules violations that are unrelated.
Branstad has said the speed was too fast, and his administration is reviewing scheduling policies to ensure that it doesn't happen again.