Special license plates shield officials from traffic tickets

Jennifer Muir of The Orange County Register reports on the California Department of Motor Vehicles' "Confidential Records Program," which was created 30 years ago to keep DMV records of police officers private from criminals. The program has since expanded to cover "hundreds of thousands of public employees – from police dispatchers to museum guards – who face little threat from the public. Their spouses and children can get the plates, too."

Muir discovered that drivers covered under the Confidential Records Program abuse the system by evading toll road charges, running red lights at intersections with red light cameras, parking illegally, and breaking other traffic laws with impunity.


Some patrol officers let drivers with protected plates off with a warning because the plates signal that the drivers are "one of their own" or related to someone who is.

The Register used public records laws to obtain OCTA computer logs for the 91 Express Lanes and found 14,535 unpaid trips by motorists with confidential plates in the past five years. A Register analysis showed that was 3,722 separate vehicles, some running the toll road hundreds of times.

Among the top violators on OCTA's list were Dwight and Michell Storay (he's a parole agent with the Department of Corrections), with 622 violations and Lenai and Arnold Carraway (she's an Orange County social worker), with 239 violations.

Some police officers confess that when they pull over someone with a confidential license plate they're more likely to let them off with a warning. In most cases, one said, if an officer realizes a motorist has a confidential plate, the car won't be pulled over at all.

"It's an unwritten rule that we would extend professional courtesy," said Ron Smith, a retired Los Angeles Police Department officer who worked patrol for 23 years. "Nine out of 10 times I would."

Many police departments that run red light camera programs systematically dismiss citations issued to confidential plates.

"It's a courtesy, law enforcement to law enforcement," San Francisco Police Sgt. Tom Lee said. "We let it go."

Link | List of toll road violators with protected plates (Via Dave Farber's IP)


  1. I’m guessing Dwight and Michell Storay aren’t feeling as confidential now ;)

    In Texas, if you have out of state plates, the toll road folks won’t try and track you down if you’re caught on camera – they lack the time or manpower to look up, for example, Missouri plates. And no common database to pull from. At least that’s how it was last time I looked into it (same goes for red light cameras)

    I’m tired of paying the toll for everyone else, too, but whatcha gonna do?

  2. as my friend always said:

    “If you work at the tennis ball factory, every-now-and-then you’ll take home some free tennis balls”

  3. San Francisco Police Sgt. Tom Lee just opened up the door to a constitutional challenge for anyone who gets a ticket in San Francisco County now. (The 14th amendment guarantees equal protection. If the law is being enforced selectively, it opens it up to challenge. Or so I’ve been told by legal-type people in the past.)

  4. As far as the clowns who run red lights, speed, etc. and get away with it, I say let ’em all hang.

    On the other hand, more power to those that cruise down the toll roads with impunity. Those roads were foisted on us because the CA government is too incompetent to even deal with basic infrastructure upgrades anymore. The solution – let someone come in and build the new roads and then let them charge for access. Screw ’em.

  5. Ugh.

    Professional courtesy should be not bitching when another agency catches a bad guy a mile into your jurisdiction, not getting away with violating the law.


    Reminds me of the cops over at cops writing cops dot com. Which I think was featured here not too long ago. If it wasn’t it should’ve been.

    Just about every day as I drive to work I am passed by a police officer going well in excess of the speed limit. It’s the same car every time, so I figure it’s a cop going into work or coming home from work, or maybe racing off to get to court on time. But his lights are not on, and his sirens are not blaring, so he’s breaking the law, same as if I went that fast in those traffic conditions. Man it pisses me off when they get away with crap like that.

    I did call 911 once on a cop running a speed trap. Driving east on I30 under the Ashland bridge, I noticed several cars in front of me acting funny, swerving and speeding up, I thought maybe there was something on the road, so I was a bit more vigilant than usual. I saw an arm and part of a head poking around the concrete traffic noise barrier thing alongside the onramp. In the hand was what looked like a large pistol pointed right at me. My first thought was “Oh shit! Freeway sniper!” and I evaded. I grabbed my cell phone and dialed 911, just about the time I was through the area and could see, now that I could see that it was, probably, a motorcycle cop (at least I could see there was a man in black next to a motorcycle, from the angle I could not tell for sure that it was a cop). Since I was on the line anyway, I reported it as a man holding what appeared to be a large pistol pointing it at traffic, and causing traffic to evade and move erratically and would likely cause a wreck soon if not stopped. “Maybe it’s a kid and it’s a prank since the high school is right there, but whatever it is, please put a stop to it. It’s dangerous and someone is going to crash.” I took the next exit and looped back around to see what happened. Several police cars swarmed in. Got a call back from 911 a few minutes later saying that it was a police officer and not to call them on cops, that they could charge me for making a false call. I said, and I was serious, that at the time I did not know that was a police officer, all I could see was the gun. And that for everyones safety, to prevent wrecks, or to prevent someone from shooting “back” at the officer, that they, the speed trap cops, need to be clearly visible. The 911 manager was pissed, but I assume she took all that down. Dunno if it did any good. Made me feel a bit better.

  6. For there to be any public trust in the police there must not only be no impropriety but no appearance of impropriety. There is no such thing as a minor infraction for public servants who are given trust and power like that we give to police officers. Any sense of entitlement or such abuse must be grounds for dismissal and/or criminal punishment.

    To every police officer who has ever complained about an ungrateful public, stories like this are the root of our discontent. No matter how fine you may be individually, you will be known by the worst of your ranks.

  7. it’s amazing where you can find loopholes, city coucils can work around this by pounding the car instead of giving a ticket.

  8. It sounds like something out of the former Soviet Union, where the well-connected could obtain special number plates that exempted them from traffic laws.

  9. “All animals are created equal… but some are more equal than others” –George Orwell (Animal Farm)

  10. Professional courtesy would be POLITELY giving them a ticket for speeding. This isn’t professional courtesy, it is dereliction of duty. When are police officers going to see that? Police are not immune to the law.

  11. I like the idea of a 14th Amendment challenge to tickets in SF County, any idea if that might work for FasTrak, too?

  12. I work for the state of California and I never get any opportunities to participate in the corruption! I must be going to the wrong parties.

  13. before computers it was uniforms, lodge rings, windshield decals….

    When anything grows to the point of abuse, the pendulum swings back the other way. In time the pendulum returns.

    Gandalf: are you describing a radar gun?

  14. The corruption instructions are on the back of the Oath of Loyalty. Didn’t you keep your copy?

  15. “It’s a courtesy, law enforcement to law enforcement,”

    No, that’s called selective enforcement. Perhaps Sgt. Lee should be “Let go” from his duties lest we find ourselves under the impression that there is a ruling class for which the rules do not apply.*

    It would be an interesting experiment to see if you could get out of a traffic ticket using this defense. It would seem that the cost of a lawyer would outweigh the cost of the ticket, but still, it would be interesting.

    (*Irony. Of course, in practice there is very much a ruling class. America is somewhat novel in that you can join this ruling class with enough cash or connections. All Lee is doing is breaking the unspoken rule of not rubbing it in the faces of the unwashed masses.)

  16. woa, I just tried to comment that you don’t need to be in a secret society, you can abuse power right out in the open, when I not only received a BB error message, but it automatically signed me out. Freaky.

  17. Doh! I erred on the side of pragmatism and decided not to read my loyalty oath or any of the other employment documents I had. I was just happy they agreed to pay me. I have learned that in a crisis I can be called upon to assist state officials in whatever the crisis is. If I am zooming down the highway to San Francisco after the big one hits to erect a shelter, hopefully I wont be pulled over and given a ticket.

  18. I not only received a BB error message, but it automatically signed me out

    That just happened to me, too. The error message told me that I had entered the wrong text. That’s cheeky.

  19. f y wr cp nd sw fllw ffcr ff-dty, prkd n hndcppd spt, wld y gv hm tckt?

    s t crrpt t ct sm nd nt thrs?

    Mst ppl xpct cps t wrk n th mst dngrs cndtns wth lw py nd sml f thr fcs. Strs f crrpt cps r nt s cmmn s ppl thnk, bt th md rprts t nd ppl gt ngry, spclly whn ts bt crrptn n pstn f pwr.

    s t crrpt? N. vn f thr wrn’t spcl lcns plts, mst plc ffcrs wldn’t ct fllw ffcr ftr bng plld vr, ths plts jst sv thm th tm.

  20. Being a police officer is less dangerous than being a gardener, yet I expect that the gardeners are very unlikely to get out of a ticket on the basis of professional courtesy.

    Admittedly, it’s three times as dangerous as being a cubicle jockey, but it’s far from the worst.

  21. I have to say that I am pretty amazed at the extreme reaction in the comments accusing law enforcement of some sort of widespread corruption for letting fellow law enforcement officers out of traffic tickets. I doubt that any of these commenters know any cops very well, nor do they seem to know much about rules of their job. My wife is a cop, and I must say that I would not consider her to be corrupt in the slightest. She routinely lets plain, civilian individuals out of traffic violations nearly every day that she is on her beat. That is because she has the authority to exercise discretion as to whether or not to issue a ticket to ANY individual that she pulls over. She is not required in any way to give them a ticket, so if she decides to let off a fellow officer as a professional courtesy, she is well within her right to do so. I can’t imagine that all of these commenters that are so up in arms, have not been let out of a ticket when pulled over by a cop themselves. In these situations, have they argued with the cop that they MUST receive a violation or else they would be giving in to corruption?! I doubt it. When anybody gets let out of a ticket they are generally extremely thankful to cop for exercising their discretion to give them a break. I really am sick of such a negative attitude toward our law enforcement that works so hard, and puts their personal safety on the line every day so that the rest of us can rest easier. Of course their is a small amount of corruption in law enforcement, as there is in pretty much any organization, but let’s not lump everyone in because of a few bad apples. To call a cop corrupt because of a small favor that they are extending to a fellow officer that might one day be somebody that they are calling on for cover while they are getting shot at or something, is just insulting.

  22. f rd t rght, y blv grdnr s mr dngrs thn cp.

    Wll f tht grdnr wrkd th lnd f n brtn clnc, myb thy wld ncntr dffclty.

    Bt f y mnt th mchnry thy s whch cld plc thm n sttns whch rs njry nd ccdnts, thn my sk wht jb dsn’t hv th pssblty f njry r dth?

    Plcng ttrcts th scm f th rth, mstly bcs plc mst rspnd t thm.

    f y rlly thnk tht th prbblty f dngr nd hrm s hghr s grdnr thn plc ffcr, thn y mst wrk n smll, sltd cmmnty.

  23. Police should be held to a HIGHER standard, not a lower one. To serve and protect means EVERYONE, not the select few.

    that said, I have no problem if a police officer exercises their discretion, so long as that discretion is used all the time and not just in the case of fellow police officers.

    I’ve met police officers who were nothing other than armed thugs, I’ve met police officers who were some of the finest people I’ve ever met. I certainly don’t think that they all should be treated equally just because they carry a badge.

  24. The program has since expanded to cover “hundreds of thousands of public employees…”

    Budget crisis? What budget crisis? How much lost revenue is in this “courtesy”?

  25. Forget to mention.

    What tickets are gardners issuing?

    Failure to cut grass?

    Each group of people provides privilages to those belonging to that group. May they be small or large, they exist.

    But mixing up a point like that does nothing but ruin your argument.

  26. If you want to see a truly appalling vision of this ‘courtesy’ being far more than a courtesy, but an expectation by some officers, you should check out http://www.copswritingcops.com, which is, essentially, a website devoted to identifying and complaining about officers who failed to provide the courtesy.

    There is a wide discrepancy between a comment featured prominently on the main page, and the actual content of the website.

    The comment which attempts to defend this practice includes this piece of wisdom:

    “Part of the curriculum for the cadets at the academy is the professional driving course, where cadets are instructed and taught that they must change their driving habits and technique from defensive driving to aggressive patrol driving. This course requires the officer to develop the skill and ability to drive at high speeds in addition to having the authority to circumvent other established traffic laws for which they understand the scope of the risk and liability for the situation created.

    After many years of developing these driving techniques / required habits, it is unrealistic to expect the off-duty officers to automatically return to the prior ‘Defensive Driving’ attitude they were operating under prior to becoming a police officer, because of a change from operating a patrol car to driving their private vehicle. I know of no police officers that have the attitude that they can intentionally disregard the traffic laws because they are immune from arrest.” (Main page)

    While this comment by itself is pretty much pure comedy — “I drive poorly and in violation of the laws because they programmed me to! And I can’t help myself!” — it is particularly humorous in light of the huge array of comments by officers complaining that -their relatives- are written tickets.

    I’m guessing that “Writing my father a ticket for a shinning a spotlight to close to a house is a real acomplishment” and “My daughter was stopped by Officer Dixon of the Staten Island Highway unit for speeding” aren’t really prime examples of police officers executing their programming.

    But what do I know.

    -wil fox-

  27. “The nomenklatura were a small, elite subset of the general population in the Soviet Union who held various key administrative positions in all spheres of the Soviet Union: government, industry, agriculture, education, etc. The nomenklatura had more authority and claimed higher privileges of the same kind as the ruling class which Communist doctrine denounced in the Capitalist West.”


  28. Am I the only person who is absolutely tired of the “I’m not ______, but…” rhetorical device? As if saying “I’m not racist, but I really don’t like black people” makes someone less of a racist. The front page of cops writing cops contains an essay about why off-duty cops should not be ticketed, and begins with this wonderful gem:

    “I do not suggest nor endorse the concept that anyone is above the law or be given immunity from arrest…”

    Tell me then, what are you suggesting?

  29. #31, your wife and other cops are supposed to let people off with a warning if they believe that the offender doesn’t pose a danger to the public, not because they’re peer-pressured into ignoring a repeat offender who happens to be another cop. It does suck that so many good cops are lumped in with the few that are bad, but it has to be that way or else cops would have no motivation to police themselves.

    I got an interesting chart awhile back that breaks down accidents and tickets by profession. Unfortunately I can’t cite it or prove its accuracy, I just remember that it came from an acquaintance in the insurance industry. Law enforcement ranked right at the bottom in tickets, and about 3/4 of the way to the bottom in accidents. That shows some disparity, but not as much as I would have expected. There was more disparity in a few traditionally female-dominated jobs like nurse. I don’t have a link, I’ll just try to copy the text here. Sorry in advance if I mess it up…

    Occupation Accidents Rank Speeding violations Rank Moving violations Rank
    Student 152 1 87 1 121 1
    Medical doctor 109 2 44 20 65 16
    Attorney 106 3 37 26 56 24
    Architect 105 4 72 5 106 3
    Real estate broker 102 5 39 25 56 25
    Unknown 101 6 43 21 63 18
    Enlisted military 99 7 78 2 99 4
    Social worker 98 8 33 32 47 30
    Manual laborer 96 9 77 3 112 2
    Analyst 95 10 40 22 60 21
    Engineer 94 11 51 12 77 9
    Consultant 94 12 50 14 68 14
    Sales 93 13 51 11 73 13
    Military officer 91 14 46 15 63 17
    Nurse 90 15 31 36 43 34
    School administrator 90 16 32 33 45 32
    Skilled laborer 90 17 65 6 89 6
    Librarian 90 18 24 40 33 39
    Creative arts 90 19 37 28 53 27
    Executive 89 20 51 13 73 11
    Insurance agent 89 21 46 18 60 22
    Banking/finance 89 22 46 17 62 19
    Customer service 88 23 55 10 77 8
    Manager 88 24 46 16 67 15
    Medical support 87 25 35 31 50 28
    Computer-related 87 26 55 9 82 7
    Dentist 86 27 45 19 61 20
    Pharmacist 85 28 31 35 44 33
    Proprietor 84 29 37 27 54 26
    Teacher/professor 84 30 30 37 43 35
    Accountant 84 31 40 23 59 23
    Law enforcement 79 32 24 39 32 40
    Physical therapist 78 33 36 29 48 29
    Veterinarian 78 34 39 24 45 31
    Clerical/secretary 77 35 27 38 38 38
    Clergyman 76 36 58 8 73 12
    Homemaker 76 37 21 41 31 41
    Politician 76 38 76 4 97 5
    Pilot 75 39 31 34 41 36
    firefighter 67 40 35 30 39 37
    Farmer 43 41 60 7 73 10
    Average 89 45 63

  30. To those who thinks this isn’t an issue…

    They are effectively giving themselves rights that the people they work for (ie. the public) have not given them. It’s sort of like saying “I work in a bank, so I can take home a few extra twenties”.

    It’s not a “professional courtesy” – it’s a bribe. It’s basicly saying “don’t turn me in when i break the law, and i’ll do the same for you”.

    It may not be a big deal if you’re talking one or two parking tickets – but when it’s standard practice, then it most definately is corruption.

  31. According to Meggers, I’m one of the few people who can actually get away with making an actual complaint.

    I’ve been pulled over more times than I can count and gotten a ticket every time. %75 of those times I was pulled over for very minor things and could get the ticket dismissed. On the few times that have been major infractions (speeding at 18 mph being the greatest), not only am I written a ticket, but my car is usually inspected.

    I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink much, and when I do I’m always a passenger. I was taught to respect all people, especially authority figures. As a result, my answers are always yes/no sir. I guess the only problem that I can think of is that I’m never nervous with them. Why should I be, I haven’t done anything wrong except be in front of them.

    My most recent infraction occurred a year ago. I lost a headlight on the way home, after 10 at night. I was ticketed for it less than a minute from my house.

    I was polite, yes/no sir answers to questions, I explained what happened, and that I was going tomorrow to buy the new light for the lamp. I was still written the ticket.

    Sure, I didn’t have to pay the fine. But, it took 5 hours of my life away to go get the ticket dismissed.

    I was no threat, wasn’t impolite and posed no serious risk to any one. So, as far as I’m concerned — This Is Corruption.

    Also, I have met quite a few decent cops. One in particular couldn’t understand how a traffic officer could, in good conscience, speed AND write people up for speeding. As far as he was concerned, if you can’t obey the laws you are enforcing, you shouldn’t be doing the job.

  32. Some of you might be wondering why I brought up risk.

    Actually there was a comment that said that police have the worst job on account of the danger involved. That post seems to have disappeared, leaving mine as somewhat of a non-sequitor.

    I based the gardner comment off of BLS numbers. The fatality rate for police is around 13 per 100,000. For groundskeepers it’s 14. Fishing and logging have more than 100, and garbagemen come in around 90. Average for all jobs is a bit over 4.

    Part of that, of course, is that they are well trained on keeping safe.

  33. I always love the way that cops and cop apologists trot out the dangerous job argument.

    Being a cop is not even in the top 10 of dangerous jobs.

    The top 10:

    Structural iron and steel workers
    Refuse collectors
    Farmers and ranchers
    Power linemen
    Truck Drivers
    Agricultural workers

    Farmers (or gardeners if you like) are four times more likely to be killed on the job than a cop.

    And judging from most of the cops I’ve seen, they’re more likely to die of a heart attack than a shootout with a desperate criminal.

    Perceived danger is no an excuse for corruption.

  34. As Takuan pointed out above, this is old news. LA cops used to have a special license plate frame for their personal cars, until civilians caught on and started making and selling knockoffs. Some people try the old “cop support organization bumper sticker” trick, which I can tell you, from personal experience, doesn’t work.

    On the other hand, I don’t mind the idea of social workers getting a break on toll roads and parking tickets, since they usually are paid crap in the first place.

  35. Takun: Yeah, it turned out to be a radar gun.

    But my first glimpse of it, with the officer hiding so that only his arm and a very little of his face, just his eyes (sunglasses) and the top of his head (no hat or helmet), and his position behind a bridge and peering out over a concrete noise barrier, and given that I was aware of something “odd” happening there because of the way other drivers were reacting , he sure did not look like a cop. And at first glance it did not look like a radar gun.

    Cops used to just stand up on that bridge in plain (rear) view. The signs on one side of the bridge hid them from sight until you were past the bridge and then you saw the whole officer and his bike up there in your rear view. Much safer for everyone, I think. But I guess people leaving downtown to go out for lunch would see them on their way out and slow down on their way back in, so maybe their quotas were not met.

  36. Corruption flows quickest to the lowest point, doesn’t it?

    Update to the “don’t trust anyone over 30” motto from the 1960s… “Don’t Trust Anyone”.

  37. You people need to get a grip. Just because a few people abuse something doesn’t signal a nationwide corruption scandal.

    My wife is a cop in CA and yes we both have registered confidential information. We use this because she works in a county where gangs are out of control and even target police at their homes. We do not run red lights. We do not run toll booths. We do not use it to break the law.

    There are people who will misuse something in every facet of society. I’m sure the majority of these cases are single incidents and that most of the people involved don’t even know they are immune.

    I don’t agree with giving this to librarians and custodians unless those people work within prisons. Until you have a close family member who works with dangerous gangs you have no idea the risk they take; even at their home. We have to have a high tech security alarm and are now adding two cameras to our home due to the increase in crime and the gang violence.

  38. #45

    Let me just say that it depends on where you are a cop. If you are a cop in Detroit, Michigan then most likely your job is on the top ten list. If you’re a cop in rural Ohio, then you likely have a very safe job.

    It’s easy for you to say it’s safe when you aren’t the one dealing with dangerous criminals, gangs, mentally disturbed addicts and more.

  39. If some are given special privilege, they come to think of themselves as special.

    The next step is start to think that others are not so special.

    This type of thing never becomes an issue if those benefiting from it keep hold of the fact that it is not a law of nature.

  40. Norcalty @ 49: You people need to get a grip. Just because a few people abuse something doesn’t signal a nationwide corruption scandal.

    From the article (the section quoted in this post, so you didn’t even need to click through):

    The Register used public records laws to obtain OCTA computer logs for the 91 Express Lanes and found 14,535 unpaid trips by motorists with confidential plates in the past five years. A Register analysis showed that was 3,722 separate vehicles, some running the toll road hundreds of times.

    Among the top violators on OCTA’s list were Dwight and Michell Storay (he’s a parole agent with the Department of Corrections), with 622 violations and Lenai and Arnold Carraway (she’s an Orange County social worker), with 239 violations.

    “A few people”? 14,535 toll road violations amassed by 3,722 separate vehicles, “some running the toll road hundreds of times”? That’s more than “a few people”.

    If a civilian uses a toll road without paying, they will be charged the toll plus a penalty, which seems to be somewhere in the $25 to $47.50 range.

    Suppose that the state had collected a penalty for each of those 14,535 unpaid trips; furthermore, suppose it’s the lowest figure given, $25. That’s $363,375 of revenue that would have been collected if not for this shady “professional courtesy”.

    Speaking as a Californian and a taxpayer, I have a problem with that.

  41. #52 – Given you have a small portion of the data set I don’t see how you can say it is mass abuse. If say 75 people abused it constantly by running it ‘hundreds of times’ (134.5) then that would more than equal the 14,535. Say that the other 3647 ran it once. That leaves 10,088 incidents that could be abusers of the system.

    I too am a taxpayer and a Californian. My point being that this could likely be a ‘few people’ when you consider that there are tens of thousands of Police, Law Enforcement, City workers, Correctional Deputies, and so on. This would make the number abusing the system a ‘few’.

    Enough said.

  42. Norcalty @ 43: Okay, let’s set aside quibbles over using the term “a few”. I would argue that “more than 14,000” doesn’t ever equal “a few”, but that’s terminology and not directly relevant.

    Do you agree that the state has missed out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue that it could have collected? Maybe to the politicians in Sacramento a few hundred thousand dollars doesn’t seem like much compared to the multi-billion-dollar deficit being projected for the state budget. To me, as an individual citizen living in a city that seems to be shutting down services by the day, it seems like a lot of money.

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