By Lee Hermiston and Erin Jordan, The Gazette
“We cannot expect the public to be held to a higher standard than we set for ourselves.”
So reads the Cedar Rapids Police Department’s policy on its automatic traffic enforcement system – the speed and red light cameras in the city three years ago. Violators caught by the cameras driving city-owned vehicles, including police officers, will be held to the same standards as the general public, the policy says. Exceptions are given to vehicles responding to an emergency.
However, unmarked government vehicles not listed in computerized files aren’t likely to be ticketed with traffic cameras used in cities including Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Muscatine and Sioux City, a Gazette survey reveals.
“If a vehicle is not on file, no violation is sent,” said Cedar Rapids Police Sgt. Cristy Hamblin. “As part of our business rules with our vendor (Gatso USA, Inc.), if a vehicle is not on file, the event is captured, but the event is not forwarded to our agency.”
Gov. Terry Branstad has come under fire this month after it was revealed that the state-owned SUV he was traveling in with Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds was reaching speeds of 90 mph in April. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation special agent who witnessed the vehicle traveling on U.S. 20 between Cedar Falls and Fort Dodge did not initially know it was the governor’s vehicle because the SUV’s registration was not kept in the computerized files.
That agent, Larry Hedlund, later complained to supervisors that the vehicle was not stopped. Hedlund was placed on administrative leave shortly thereafter, though authorities say that has nothing to do with Hedlund’s complaint.
All state vehicles are registered, but some are not in computerized files, Lt. Rob Hansen, Public Information Bureau Chief for the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
This means, if a law enforcement officer tries to do an electronic search for the vehicle’s plate number, the number won’t be found. Or, in the case of an automated traffic system, such as the one in Cedar Rapids, the vendor won’t recognize the vehicle.
Hansen said law enforcement can call the Iowa Department of Transportation or send a query via teletype to figure out which agency owns the car.
“All of these vehicles can be traced,” he said.
But, Hamblin said, Cedar Rapids only traces vehicles that can be clearly identified by markings on the vehicle.
“For our cameras, obviously, if it captures a plate that is a marked police car, we know it’s a Cedar Rapids police car,” she said.
The same goes for marked city and county vehicles, school buses or other government vehicles, Hamblin said. But finding out who was behind those wheels takes a little more work.
While private citizens have their license plate registered to their specific vehicles, government agencies often request license plates in bunches without notifying the state which plate corresponds with a specific Vehicle Identification Number, thereby making it impossible for the traffic camera vendor to know who is behind the wheel.
In those cases, Hamblin said the department will contact that agency and attempt to determine who was driving the vehicle at the time of the infraction.
Hansen said he does not know how many vehicles are left off the computerized list, but said he will contact fleet managers to request a tally.
Bottom line, Hansen said, is that local agencies with speed cameras have the ability to trace a state car and issue a citation.
“If cities choose not to follow up on it, that’s a different question,” he said. “Why are they giving a free pass?”
However, Hamblin said no free passes are given when the vehicle can be traced back to a specific agency. In the case of law enforcement violations, Hamblin said the information is forwarded to that agency and their director is tasked with determining if the excessive speed was warranted.
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said every suspected violation involving a county vehicle is supposed to be routed through him.
“I track down where the plates belong,” Gardner said. “If it’s an official plate, then obviously, you can run the plate number. If it’s an undercover plate, it takes a little more digging.”
Once he determines which county department the vehicle belongs to, Gardner said he contacts that department and asks them to contact the employee who was driving the vehicle. That employee must then tell Gardner why they were speeding.
If they can’t offer up a lawful reason, they’re referred to the Cedar Rapids Police Department to pay their fine.
“We haven’t had any come across my desk now for quite some time,” Gardner said. “I think the county employees are aware of the locations of the cameras and slow down accordingly.”
Gardner said he can recall a time when a LIFTS bus ran through a red light. Gardner spoke with the bus driver who said he was driving on a slippery road and was concerned about the risk slamming on the brakes posed to his riders. Gardner said he advised the driver to go through the citation contesting process.
In other cases, county employees have just admitted their wrongdoing and paid their fine, Gardner said.
Gardner said that “without exception,” every time a county deputy was captured by a camera, he or she was responding to an emergency with lights and sirens activated or preparing to respond to a traffic stop. In the case a deputy was found to be speeding without cause, Gardner said they would be treated “just like anybody else.”
“They can’t speed just because they want to,” he said. “They have to have a lawful purpose.”
Cedar Rapids in not unique in their policy regarding vehicles with registrations not kept in computerized files. Police officials in Muscatine, Sioux City and Des Moines reported having similar policies.
If a plate isn’t in computerized file, Gatso, the traffic camera vendor, rejects the plate and doesn’t send the information to the Des Moines Police Department, Sgt. Jason Halifax said.
This is the same for cars without plates or for cars with plates that come back as being registered to another type of car, he said.
“If it’s a marked vehicle and we can identify where the vehicle comes from, we’ll send them a citation,” Halifax said.
Gatso sends the DMPD a list of citations every month. DMPD reviews the complaints before Gatso then sends out tickets, he said.If Des Moines officers are busted for speeding through a traffic camera, supervisors will see whether they were going to an emergency. If not, the officer will likely pay the ticket, Halifax said.