By Ryan J. Foley
The Associated Press
IOWA CITY, Iowa — If Gov. Terry Branstad's state vehicle speeds through Iowa's two largest cities, the driver could enjoy a perk that thousands of other motorists would envy: a break from the aggressive photo enforcement of speeding and red light violations.
The SUV's status in which its license plates are not included in police databases came to light last week in records related to a high-speed pursuit in April, where state police officers had no idea whom they were following at up to 90 mph.
After that incident, a state agent complained to superiors that the governor's vehicle routinely speeds, putting public safety at risk, and should not be treated differently than ordinary citizens.
Officials in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Council Bluffs, which are among the Iowa cities that use traffic cameras, said they would give the governor's vehicle a pass because its plates are not in their files, noting the time-consuming process to look up license plates that carry a special designation, such as the governor's.
"Essentially it wouldn't get sent out, like it doesn't exist almost," said police Sgt. Jason Halifax in Des Moines, which issued tens of thousands of tickets last year generated by traffic cameras.
He said public awareness about the governor's vehicle being treated differently could add another element to the heated debate over whether the cameras are fair. Branstad's administration is already moving to rein in the use of such cameras by cities and counties on state highways, amid complaints from libertarians and angry motorists.
"As more agencies look at putting those cameras in place, it adds more fuel to that fire, to that furor over whether they are legal or not," Halifax said.
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman A.J. Spiker, a critic of the cameras, said Tuesday that eliminating them statewide would ensure all drivers are treated equally.
"Hardworking Iowans shouldn't be getting tickets in the mail while government employees get a pass," he said in a statement.
Lt. Rob Hansen, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said Tuesday that the license plates of state vehicles such as the governor's receive a special designation when they are used for "dignitary protection and other covert law enforcement purposes." He said it isn't an attempt to exempt the vehicles from traffic cameras, noting that law enforcement can conduct a separate query of the Iowa Department of Transportation to learn the governor's vehicle is registered as a state vehicle.
But city officials said they do not take the time to do that to pursue fines that are often $75 or $100 apiece.
Cedar Rapids police spokeswoman Sgt. Cristy Hamblin said the city would not ticket the governor's vehicle for camera traffic infractions, or any other vehicle that comes back in its database as "not on file." Vehicles with the wrong plates would also fall in that category and the "sheer number" of such violators makes them impractical to track down, she said. The city has issued more than 45,000 citations and generated $2 million since January.
The designation for the governor's vehicle was made public when the Department of Public Safety released audio and video of an April 26 incident involving a trooper who was driving Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who are Republicans.
Special Agent in Charge Larry Hedlund of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation reported that a black SUV zipped past him on westbound Highway 20 in northern Iowa doing "a hard 90" mph. He called in the license plate number, but a dispatcher told him it was not in the computer file.
Hedlund thought he must have misread the plate, and so he tried to catch up to the Tahoe to read the number again. After a few minutes, he gave up, saying: "I'd have to get pretty damn close to read it now." A trooper who clocked the vehicle going 84 mph also called in the plate and was told it was not on file.
Eventually, police saw it was "Car 1," the governor's vehicle, and didn't pull it over. Hedlund was placed on paid administrative leave May 1 in what his attorney claims was retaliation for filing an internal complaint about the governor's speeding. The administration denies that, and Hedlund is fighting allegations that he was insubordinate and violated work rules.
Reynolds, the lieutenant governor, said Monday that state officials are reviewing the governor's transportation and scheduling to ensure speeding is not a problem in the future.
Hansen said the review would not look at whether the governor's plates should be listed in police databases, saying it is not a problem because the registration information is available in the car and through DOT. He said shielding the information helps "ensure the integrity of dignitary movement and other law enforcement activities."
Council Bluffs does not enforce its red light cameras against such vehicles that aren't on file, said police officer Michael Hernandez. He said the private company the city contracts with to oversee the cameras does not even send video of such violations to the city for review.
"I don't know if it's cost prohibitive to them or if it's something we decided we're not going to mess with," he said, "but they do not get issued citations."