Branstad’s SUV gets pass from some traffic cameras

IOWA CITY – 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.