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Deputy Busted Over Plate

By T.J. Wilham
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    It didn't take a red-light camera to catch a Bernalillo County sheriff's deputy breaking the law.
    It took a news conference.
    On Tuesday, as Mayor Martin Chávez and Police Chief Ray Schultz were giving a news conference in the parking lot of the police station, they noticed a sheriff's deputy's squad car parked nearby with a cover over its license plate.
    The cover, which law enforcement officers say is illegal, is commonly used by people trying to avoid detection by the city's traffic enforcement cameras.
    "Talk about a bad day for the deputy," Schultz said. "We were doing a press conference right next to his car, the press conference was about license plate readers and I had a meeting scheduled with the sheriff afterwards."
    Schultz brought the license plate cover to Sheriff Darren White's attention during the lunch meeting.
    Sheriff's officials said the covers violate the law and the department's standard operating procedures. Discipline against the deputy, who is assigned to the DWI unit, will be coming, they said.
    Sheriff's officials said they are considering temporarily taking away his take-home car privileges.
    They are withholding the deputy's name until an internal investigation is complete.
    "We are extremely disappointed in the deputy's decision to obstruct a license plate in a manner that is clearly meant to avoid detection most likely from the traffic enforcement cameras," said Bernalillo County Undersheriff Sal Baragiola. "I can think of no excuse to obstruct the license plate of a county vehicle. I doubt the deputy could think of an excuse either."
    Baragiola said the sheriff's department has a "zero tolerance policy" on deputies who get caught on camera. He said when deputies are caught, they are required to pay the fine. The only exception is when they are en route to a call.
    About a dozen deputies have been caught running red lights or speeding on camera.
    Three weeks ago, Schultz issued a memo to his department to crack down on motorists with the license-plate covers. In the first two weeks after the memo was issued, officers wrote 548 citations.
    "The license plate is on the vehicle for a reason: so that any person can identify that vehicle," Schultz said. "If people are allowed to obstruct a license plate, why have it on a car?"
    It is unknown how well the plate covers work. When a plate can't be read by a computer system, it is not sent to APD from the third-party contractor the department hired.
    APD officials said about 20 plates that had the covers were legible.
    At least one vendor in Albuquerque has sold the covers and a spray that is supposed to thwart the red light cameras.
    Police officials say the spray does not work.
    The Web site photoblocker.com advertises the covers at $25 a piece. They come with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
    Joe Scott, vice president of marketing for photoblocker.com, said his company would give the deputy his money back if he bought it from the Web site within the past 30 days.
    "We get a lot of law enforcement officers who buy our product," Scott said. "In the old days, a cop wouldn't give another cop a ticket. But in these days, you can be a mayor and it wouldn't matter."
    As far as whether they work, "if our product is good enough for the cops, it's good enough for everybody."