After initially claiming that red-light camera-foiling license-plate covers don't work, the city now says they do - and that they're illegal.

Albuquerque police have handed out more than 500 citations in recent months during a crack down on the plate covers, which come in plastic and spray-on options.

Companies that make the covers say they leave license plates perfectly visible to the naked eye but undetectable to red-light cameras and photo-radar devices.

No state law deals specifically with license-plate covers. But the law does require license plates to be clearly visible and free of obstructions.

The City Attorney's Office says the same reflective technology that helps the covers foil the cameras also makes them an obstruction.

"The license plate has to be visible to a police officer," Assistant City Attorney Greg Wheeler said. "If you hit one of the covers with a spotlight, it will reflect the spotlight."

To red-light-camera critics and manufacturers of the devices, that sounds like a flimsy excuse.

Joe Scott, a marketing director for Photoblocker Spray, said an officer who shines a light on a treated plate would have time for his eyes to adjust, unlike a camera.

"The law says the plate has to be visible to the naked eye, not to a camera," he said.

Others say the crackdown on license covers is part of a larger effort to bilk taxpayers with Big Brother devices.

"We'd argue that license-plate covers rank up there with jaywalking as far as law-enforcement priorities are concerned," wrote the anonymous author of the "Eye on Albuquerque" blog, which has been fiercely critical of what the blog calls "scam-eras."

The blog also claims the City Attorney's Office has been working "furiously" to settle the license-plate-cover citations and keep them from going to court.

Wheeler denies that. He said the office is willing to bargain down the $84 citation to $59 in court costs if drivers turn in their plate covers. But plea bargaining is a common practice in traffic court, he said.

Metro Court Chief Judge Judith Nakamura declined to comment, but court spokeswoman Janet Blair said the citations can be successfully prosecuted if an officer convinces a judge the covers constitute a real obstruction.

Another question lies just beneath the surface. If someone creates a license-plate cover that foils a camera without affecting an actual police officer, would that be illegal? In other words, do robotic law-enforcement devices have the same legal standing as human officers?

"That we don't know," Wheeler said. "It hasn't been tested. The law was clearly meant to apply to the human eye, but I think that it could evolve to include a camera."

Others disagree.

"I don't think these devices count as cops by proxy," said Eric Hannon, an Albuquerque defense attorney.

In the meantime, enforcement against the license-plate covers will continue, said police spokesman John Walsh, who once said people were "wasting their money" by purchasing the ineffective covers.

"It obstructs it a little bit," Walsh said this week.