A KSL investigation found tens of thousands of Utah motorists could be pulled over and ticketed because a state contracted database mislabels them as uninsured.
The result: motorists could pay hundreds of dollars in tow fees and have to go to court to prove their innocence, even if the driver had done nothing wrong on the road.
Targeted and ticketed
It happened to Kelly Chiodo. On her way to breakfast one morning, she was stopped at a red light in North Salt Lake.
“Right when the light turned green that’s when the red and blues started shining,” said Chiodo.
Police dash camera video shows a North Salt Lake police officer following Chiodo as she pulled into a parking lot, then blocking Chiodo’s car in.
The officer walked to Chiodo’s passenger window and said, “The reason I stopped you today is I show your vehicle doesn’t have insurance.”
Chiodo had insurance, but couldn’t prove it on the spot. She got a ticket, but the officer cut her a break: she didn’t get towed.
Chiodo fought it in court. After proving she was insured all along, she got the ticket dismissed.
Police use their in-car computers to access data provided by Insure-Rite, the company contracted by the state to operate the uninsured motorist database.
Utah created the database over 20 years ago to identify uninsured motorists and get them to follow the state’s mandatory insurance laws.
By law, the company is audited every three years by the state to check for accuracy. The latest audit showed Insure-Rite matched 96.7 percent of the motorists in the database correctly.
That means there are about 56,000 drivers in Utah who may fall within the database’s margin of error and be mislabeled as uninsured, when they actually have insurance.
“In that matching process you’re going to have some mistakes when you have a couple billion records and 300 different insurance companies,” said Insure-Rite CEO Richard Kasteler.
Mistakes can be caused by several factors:
– An insurance company doesn’t report your new policy right away.
– Out-of-state insurance companies are not required to report to the database.
– A clerical error in a vehicle’s identification number.
Those results can cause a person to be flagged as uninsured and pulled over by police.
The KSL Investigators reviewed three years of traffic stops from across Utah and found 11,800 tickets issued for no insurance.
West Valley City police issued the most tickets: 568 total over that time. Our research showed 158 of those tickets, almost 28 percent, were dismissed after motorists went to court and proved they had insurance.
Police defend their use of the database.
“We do it to protect the motorists in the State of Utah,” said Allan Shinney, the director of the Department of Motor Vehicles Enforcement.
Shinney and other law enforcement sources insist these stops are not a violation of your civil rights because the law makes car insurance mandatory.
“If you’re a single mother or a college student where you just have liability and then you get into a wreck with somebody who has no insurance and then you have nothing, and that’s happened to three of my family members, that’s painful,” said Shinney.
It’s legality may be for a court to decide.
Defense attorney and former prosecutor Kent Morgan calls the practice unconstitutional and said there’s a bigger problem here: he believes Chiodo shouldn’t have been stopped in the first place.
“You cannot be stopped by a policeman just to check and see if you’re violating the law, they must have at least a reasonable suspicion to believe that you’re committing a crime,” said Morgan.
In Chiodo’s traffic stop, the officer’s citation said she had been parked on the side of the road and ran a records check on Chiodo’s license plate, which was identified as uninsured.
The officer listed no other reason on the citation for the stop, and did not provide any other reason to Chiodo on the body camera recording.
Morgan believes the practice of pulling people over by using a database to check for insurance when no other traffic law has been broken violates motorists’ civil rights. He points to a decades old U.S. Supreme Court decision as proof.
“This is America,” Morgan said, “and in America, reasonable suspicion to believe you violated the law is a condition to confronting people and detaining them.”
Prevent it happening to you
The onus is on the motorist to prove they carry insurance.
Motorists can call Insure-Rite to double check they are properly matched in the database. The company’s phone number is 801-531-0731.
Insure-Rite told us it sends letters to residents who are flagged as uninsured. Ignoring the letters twice will lead the state to revoke a car’s registration for lacking insurance.
To fight the ticket on the spot, motorists must provide proof of insurance with either an insurance card kept in the car, or information on a smart phone.