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The intersection of license plates, prison labor and biased policing
If you're not a cop or a car enthusiast, you might not know about the fierce debate over front license plates.
Most states, including Iowa, require most vehicles to display two plates, one on the front and one on the back. Police say they're a necessary tool for catching bad guys, while gear heads say they look bad on classic cars.
It is hardly a top issue of the day, but lawmakers' recent debate on it was illuminating. Iowa Democrats continued their bizarre embrace of aggressive and counterproductive tough-on-crime policies, even stooping to defend prison labor.
Legislators are considering a bill to make modest changes to Iowa's license plate requirements. Senate File 419 would allow certain specialty vehicles to carry a front plate inside the vehicle, rather than displaying it. It would also restrict failure to post a front plate to a secondary offense, meaning police couldn't pull drivers over for that reason alone.
The legislation passed the Iowa Senate this week mostly along party lines, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed. Democrats pulled out a long and strange list of objections.
Advocates for universal front license plates said the bill would harm manufacturing workers, including those who are incarcerated.
'Inmates stay busy producing these license plates. That could affect keeping them busy. So, it's inmate jobs and manufacturing jobs,” said Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids.
The business protectionism is bad, but it's the proud embrace of underpaid captive labor that really sets it off for me. Either way, Taylor was wrong - the proposal requires just as many license plates to be made, so his treasured prison labor should be unaffected.
Critics of the bill said it would hamstring police officers, who occasionally rely on front license plates to track suspected criminals. State Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, said, it's 'handcuffing the ability of law enforcement to do its job.”
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The bill they oppose would reduce primary traffic stops by police officers, which are associated with racially biased policing. Cities such as my home of Iowa City are taking steps to cut down on primary stops as a way to combat racial disproportionality in police encounters.
One lawmaker called it 'cancel culture” to take away front plates. But the legislation would allow anyone likes their front license plate to keep their front license plate.
The industrial conglomerate 3M, which is based in Minnesota and has interests in Iowa, partners with law enforcement groups to defend front license plates. It also happens to be a major seller or license plate materials and accessories.
The 'FRNT PL8” campaign - a collaboration between 3M and police lobbyists - plainly characterizes it as a policing-for-profit scheme: 'Toll enforcement and parking garage fees are negatively impacted in states requiring rear plates only.”
But the bill in Iowa is extremely narrow, more of a small kickback for hobbyists than a meaningful policy change. All cars will still have two license plates, and most will display them on front and back. To detractors, that somehow is seen as an attack on police.
Democrats have a reputation for being progressive on law enforcement reform. In Iowa, they're doing their damnedest to make sure that reputation is unearned.
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