IOWA CITY— Government agencies have lost or misused more than 200 Iowa license plates that were issued for undercover work, and hundreds more should never have been distributed in the first place, according to a report released Thursday.
A four-month review by the Iowa Department of Transportation found that 167 such plates are missing, 46 weren’t necessary for the work that was being performed and 18 were being used for purposes that were not authorized by state law. More than 500 others were issued to federal and out-of-state agencies, even though they do not qualify under the law, the review found.
The purpose of issuing the ordinary-looking plates is to allow police and government officials to conduct work that could be disrupted if their identities were known. But those plates also allow the vehicles to avoid tickets from some speed and red light cameras operated by cities because they are marked as not on file. All other government plates in Iowa are required to be marked “official.”
Gov. Terry Branstad ordered the review in July after The Associated Press reported that 3,200 plates had been issued to local, state and federal agencies. The AP reported last month that the DOT will cancel all those plates and reissue only those that are justified after establishing a formal application process, which is detailed in Thursday’s report.
The report recommends changes that would allow municipalities that operate traffic cameras to be able to search a police database to find out which agency owns the undercover plates and issue tickets when appropriate. DOT officials found no justification for the current practice of keeping that information out of the database.
The review found the plates made up a tiny fraction of the 4.2 million issued in Iowa and that the majority of them “are actively assigned to a vehicle ostensibly being used for a purpose” permitted under state law. Those include police officers conducting investigations and enforcing drug laws, Iowa Lottery employees carrying tickets and health care workers who conduct off-site visits.
But DOT officials acknowledge that they had issued the plates to government agencies who requested them without certifying that their use would be appropriate. In some cases, the DOT had issued plates based on a misinterpretation of the law for uses that should not have been permitted, the report said.
Police agencies, for instance, should not be able to use the plates for routine enforcement and administrative activities, and state law should be changed to allow federal agencies to qualify for the plates, the report said. The DOT said it would cancel 29 plates issued to police forces from other states, who were not supposed to be eligible.