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bring in millions in revenue from traffic cameras — including Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City and Council Bluffs — do not cite vehicles that fall in that category, which also includes plates that don't match the vehicles driven and plates that are so old they aren't in the computer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.