Undercover license plates intended for police investigations have been granted for utility vehicles, administrators’ cars and for agencies not listed as eligible for the plates, a Gazette investigation found.
The Iowa Department of Transportation is asking more than 350 local, state and federal agencies to audit their use of license plates not listed in computerized files. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad ordered the review last month after the DOT reported more than 3,200 undercover plates in circulation.
“The primary reason for use of these plates is because the duties of the agency personnel cannot reasonably be conducted in a vehicle displaying ‘official’ registration plates,” said Andrew Lewis, of the Office of Vehicle and Motor Carrier Services of the Iowa Department of Transportation. “If you’re talking with agencies that use those on utility vehicles, those plates should be turned in.”
Vehicles with undercover plates can avoid traffic camera citations in several Iowa cities.
The question of whether public officials are skipping speeding tickets arose after an April incident in which a state-owned SUV carrying Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds was clocked driving 84 mph on U.S. Highway 20, which has a speed limit of 65.
A state trooper who pursued the car did not initially know it contained the governor because the SUV’s license plate was not kept in computerized files.
Since the 1930s, Iowa law enforcement officers have been allowed to request undercover license plates for surveillance, stings or top-secret investigations. Officials now permitted to use the plates include lottery delivery drivers, disease investigators, mental health professionals and economic development officials pursuing new business ventures for Iowa.
Undercover plates look like standard-issue Iowa license plates, but if a law enforcement officer or other authorized public employee tries to search for the plate electronically, it won’t be found.
Agencies can track these plates with a phone call or Teletype query to the DOT.
Sixty pages of emails the DOT provided in response to a Gazette Open Records request show informal notes from local, state and federal agencies asking for new plates and updated registration stickers or advising DOT that unused plates are being destroyed.
“I have a law officer that has a trailer he uses when he is doing undercover work,” wrote Erin Massman, an accountant for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources on May 8. “He was wondering if it was possible to get an undercover plate.”
“When the plates say ‘official,’ he cannot catch people as well,” Massman said.
Department of Administrative Services employee Mike Drottz asked July 3 for 21 plates for the state’s Department of Banking. Iowa’s Division of Banking is not listed in Iowa Code Section 321.19 as a state agency eligible for undercover plates, but the DOT agreed to send them.
DAS Spokesman Caleb Hunter said the agency is doing further research into those plates, which have not yet been distributed.
The Gazette also contacted 12 agencies to ask how they use the undercover plates.
The DNR, charged with safeguarding Iowa’s great outdoors, has more undercover plates than any other agency with at least 210.
Most of the DNR plates go to Iowa’s 95 game wardens, who each have two sets of plates — neither listed in computerized files. One set of plates are called “C plates” for the letter “C” and the officer’s badge number, spokesman Kevin Baskins said. The other set looks like a typical Iowa plate.
“They have standardized plates if they need to be undercover,” Baskins said. “They are used a limited number of times and our people document them when they use them.”
Iowa’s 30 park rangers also have C plates, he said.
The Iowa Lottery uses most of its 50 undercover plates on vans and trucks used to deliver tickets to convenience stores and other vendors. Security specialists said marked cars would be targeted by ticket thieves, Iowa Lottery spokeswoman Mary Neubauer said.
“It’s a workplace safety issue for our employees and a physical security issue for our tickets,” she said.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department has 70 sets of plates not listed in computerized files, Sgt. Cristy Hamblin said. The bulk of those plates are rotated for use on unmarked vehicles by officers doing undercover investigations.
“If we have officers doing surveillance, undercover purchases, we want to keep them as safe as possible,” Hamblin said.
But the department also gives undercover plates to administrators, including Hamblin and Chief Wayne Jerman, who do not regularly do investigative work. Utility vehicles, such as the department’s boat trailer and a red Jeep that serves as a mobile speed camera, also have plates not found in computerized files.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office has 28 sets of plates not listed in computerized files. A pickup, inmate transport bus and cars used for school visits have these plates in addition to those used for police investigations, Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said.
Some of the agencies using undercover Iowa plates are head-scratchers. What does the Kansas City Police Department need with 14 sets of Iowa plates? Turns out, they don’t know.
“I called the fleet manager and it didn’t sound familiar to him,” said KCPD Sgt. Marissa Barnes. “The first thing that comes to mind is undercover vehicles that are doing business up there.”
The Skokie (Illinois) Police Department has one set of Iowa plates not listed in computerized files that they rotate in with other Illinois undercover plates for use in their own jurisdiction, Skokie Officer Joe Marzigliano said.
“The bad guys get to know our plates,” he said. “To keep it out of the realm of them finding out, we will go out of state.”
The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates interstate and international communications, has four sets of Iowa plates not listed in computerized files.
One of the big things the FCC investigates is pirate radio stations, which operate without a license and can cause problems with other stations and air traffic control. Iowa had six enforcement actions for piracy from 2003 to 2013, the agency reported.
Agencies’ desire to use undercover plates begs the question of who has access to the computerized database of all motor vehicle registrants. Should the rest of us be worried?
The state restricts access to license plate information, which can include the driver’s name, address, Social Security number and driving record. A handful of DOT employees administer the database and provide look-up services to authorized users, Lewis said.
Law enforcement officers frequently tap into the database for patrol and investigations. But it’s not just cops who may use the data.
Iowa Code section 321.11 permits access to “an employee of a federal or state agency or political subdivision in the performance of the employee’s official duties, a contract employee of the Department of Inspections and Appeals in the conduct of an investigation, or a licensed private investigation agency or a licensed security service or a licensed employee of either, if the information is requested by the presentation of a registration plate number.”
Law enforcement employees may also, by law, release the name, address and phone number of a motor vehicle registrant to someone else if they believe “that the release of the information is necessary in the performance of the officer’s or employee’s duties.”
Misusing the system
Some officers around the country have been arrested for running plates for illegal purposes.
A Dallas-area officer was charged in June with unlawfully providing law enforcement-sensitive information. Thomas S. Kantzos is accused of looking up names or license plates on a police database at the request of his drug supplier, who was concerned he was being watched by police, the Dallas Morning News reported.
A Voorhees, N.J., police officer was charged in 2012 with using his access to a motor vehicle database to get personal information about an attractive female driver he later pursued on Facebook.
Even in Cedar Rapids, a police officer was disciplined in the mid-2000s for looking up a license plate and providing that information to a community member, Hamblin said. She trusts Cedar Rapids officers, but she doesn’t know about all the others.
“I think it’s a protection for the one potential bad officer that is out there,” Washington Police Chief Greg Goodman added. The Washington Police Department, with 13 sworn officers, has five sets of plates not found in computerized files.
Lewis acknowledged that there can be bad apples who abuse the system — which is why the DOT supports use of undercover plates. But it’s time for agencies to give up license plates that aren’t being used as Iowa law intended, he said.
“Basically, we’re having everyone clean house,” he said.