Tuesday, December 25, 2001

Police warned
on plate covers

An internal memo advises against
their use on vehicles to
defeat traffic cameras

By Rod Antone

The Honolulu Police Department is warning its officers not to cover the license plates of any of their police vehicles. An internal memo, sent out Wednesday, comes as police as well as other motorists are purchasing "Eliminator" plastic covers -- a device that is being touted as the way to beat the state's new traffic photo enforcement system.

The memo, which was signed by police Chief Lee Donohue, states that "departmental personnel" are "not permitted" to place coverings on the license plates of "all departmental vehicles," both "city-owned as well as subsidized." Though the memo does not mention the Eliminator cover by its brand name, it does address the way in which the plate cover is supposed to work.

According to local auto parts dealers who sell the Eliminator, it covers license plates with plastic allowing them to be read when looking at them straight on, but renders them unreadable at certain angles.

In the memo Donohue states that officers' license plates "should be plainly visible from all angles" and "not be obscured by coverings of any sort."

There is some debate, however, whether Donohue's memo is even necessary since state Department of Transportation officials have said that the plate covers do not work anyway.

"DOT claims the covers don't work, so is it still an obstruction? It's not clear," said detective Alex Garcia, Oahu Chapter chairman for the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

SHOPO officials say officers should do what they are told.

"I'd adhere to department policy. ... Until it can be clarified, I don't think officers should put anything on their plates."

John Pinero, president of Performance Auto Care Center, which sells the majority of the plate covers on Oahu, says the Eliminator does work, though it is "not 100 percent." Since Pinero began selling the plate covers on Dec. 10, he said several police officers have come in and at times bought "20 to 30" covers each.

"I've sold about 1,500 covers so far," Pinero said. "Besides police there were government officials, ambulance drivers, firefighters, city refuse workers, even state Department of Transportation employees."

"My customers aren't teenagers like people might think. ... A lot of them are professionals in their 40s, 50s and 60s."

Several police officers who did not want to be identified said they were upset that they might be tagged by the traffic enforcement cameras while doing their job. One example given was that a police officer who did not have his or her lights flashing could be tagged while trying to match speeds with a motorist to judge how fast that motorist was going.

According to another police memo sent out last week, the policy for officers who were tagged by the photo system would be as follows:

1. "If (it) can be seen on the image that the blue light is flashing, no citation will be generated."

2. "If the flashing light cannot be seen, the citation will be sent to the Chief's office for disposition. By law copies of the citation will also be sent to the Traffic Violations Bureau (TVB).

Generally, the violator has 15 days to resolve the issue of the citation. Which means that HPD has 15 days to inform TVB as to the disposition of the citation. One, that the officer was on an valid emergency call." or "Two, the officer will have to pay for the citation."

3. "For all other vehicles that cannot be identified as being on-duty, the citation will be sent to the registered owner."

Transportation Department spokeswoman Marilyn Kali has said that police as well as other law enforcement would not be exempt from the photo enforcement project.

Police Department traffic officials could not be reached yesterday to talk about what kind of penalties, if any, officers could face if they are caught with the plate covers on their vehicles.

The traffic cameras have been in use since Dec. 3. They are designed to catch speeders and motorists who run red lights. Violators would receive citations in the mail.

A warning period was to expire on Dec. 16 but was extended until sometime early next month because of questions from the public.

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