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Can drivers buy CHP leniency?

License plate frames for donors to the 11-99 Foundation are seen by some as speeding-ticket insurance. The group will stop issuing them.

September 27, 2008|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

It was the kind of move that would usually mean a ticket for a young guy in a tricked-out BMW: unsafely zipping around a truck and another vehicle -- which happened to be a CHP cruiser -- while zooming down the road.

But rather than getting slapped with a fine last year on U.S. 101 south of San Francisco, Nick Palefsky was let go with a warning.

"He said, 'Next time, be a little bit more cautious,' " Palefsky recounted in a recent interview. It was one of four occasions in the last three years in which Palefsky, 22, said he was stopped by California Highway Patrol or local police officers; only once did he receive a ticket.

Palefsky believes a license plate frame proclaiming membership in the California Highway Patrol 11-99 Foundation helped him avoid the tickets.

The foundation, based in Fullerton, draws its name from the emergency police radio code for "officer needs assistance." It has taken in millions of dollars in tax-free donations for more than 25 years and used the money to aid families of CHP employees.

For $5,000, donors have received the license plate frame as well as, until recently, a brass identification card bearing a small star similar to a CHP badge. The group says neither one was intended as a way to get out of tickets. But Palefsky is hardly the only one who believes they function that way.

The frame has been called "the ultimate speeding ticket solution in California" on an online Mercedes-Benz chat board. And recently, the frames have been popping up for sale on Craigslist and EBay, for $250 to $1,000. The resales have angered the foundation but it has so far been unable to stop them.

"There's definitely a perceived benefit, as well as a real benefit," said one online seller, who asked that his name not be used. "There's this real tangible benefit of possibly getting favorable treatment from a CHP officer."

In response to inquiries from The Times, CHP Commissioner J.A. Farrow looked into the matter and was "surprised" and "bothered" by what he found. Farrow, who took over the top spot at the agency this year, said he was concerned that the frames were creating a perception that 11-99 membership results in beneficial treatment from officers.

He issued an agency-wide memo this month reiterating the CHP's policy against giving anyone special consideration, and strengthened it by adding: "CHP personnel shall not honor nor recognize any form of communication which purports, infers or extends a privilege or immunity" from enforcement of the law.

He also took his concerns to the foundation, whose board voted last week to stop issuing the frames by January.

Farrow said he remains supportive of the foundation's work, and the CHP's website maintains a prominent link to the group's home page.

With the money it has raised, the 11-99 Foundation has helped thousands of children and spouses of CHP employees pay for college, provided immediate cash assistance to families of officers killed or injured in the line of duty, and offered all manner of support when agency employees or their families have suffered from prolonged illnesses or other misfortune.

The foundation's leaders say the license plate frames have been a vital marketing tool in raising money for those efforts. There are several thousands of the frames on cars cruising California's streets and highways, and they are often the most exotic autos on the road: Aston Martins, Lamborghinis, Land Rovers and top-of-the line BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Audis.

Edward Trickey, the foundation's president and chief executive, said the group has taken steps to reduce the risk of members expecting a break on the road, such as raising the minimum donation necessary to receive a frame, conducting background checks on potential members, terminating membership of donors who try to abuse their privileges and specifying on the application form that membership does not buy "leniency."

Trickey said he has received three tickets in the time he has worked for the charity. "It clearly has not gotten me out of tickets," he said. "And that's not why I put it on my car."

The brass identification cards were issued with wallet-style holders. The foundation's board voted in May to stop giving them out, after the state attorney general issued an opinion last year saying that issuing official-looking badges is a violation of state law.

The opinion was prompted by several incidents in which politicians such as county sheriffs gave honorary badges to campaign supporters.

There's no definitive way of telling how many people -- if any -- have been let off the hook because of their foundation membership. But several members said in interviews and Internet postings that they believed their 11-99 identification had gotten them out of what would otherwise have been an expensive lesson to slow down.

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