License plate readers concern some, not others
by Jack Deming
Nov 22, 2013 | 3725 views | 0 0 comments | 85 85 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An automatic license plate reader on the trunk of a Wilmington police car.
An automatic license plate reader on the trunk of a Wilmington police car.
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Last week, part one of our series on surveillance practices in Vermont focused on statewide surveillance and the use of multiple data-collecting techniques that some say could be used to track individuals throughout their daily lives. This week, we talked with state and local officials about the use of controversial automatic license plate readers, and whether their use is intrusive, or routine police work. What we found was that even in the law enforcement community, there are conflicting views on the necessity of the devices.

WINDHAM COUNTY- As you drive past a police car, the officer inside can perform a check of your license plate using the National Crime Information Center, a database that holds millions of records, and can be accessed by virtually every criminal justice agency nationwide.

Among NCIC’s many uses, an officer can determine if a vehicle is stolen, if the person the vehicle is registered to is wanted, or if a license is under suspension. This check is sometimes called an “offline” or “manual” check, and according to the FBI, millions of these checks are performed every day. The NCIC is also used during routine traffic stops, and features 14 files that include the national sex offender registry, a violent persons list, and a suspected terrorist list.

While these manual searches continue to be a crucial practice for law enforcement agencies, some have incorporated the use of automatic license plate readers into their departments. Using digital cameras and optical character recognition software, ALPRs read the numbers and letters on a license plate, allowing police to read an average of 1,800 plates per hour, whether a car is parked or moving. Using ALPRs creates a fast alternative to manual checks and gives law enforcement agencies another tool to use while fighting crime and dangerous driving.

But opponents of ALPRs say the devices are intrusive. Equipped with global positioning systems, ALPRs can record where and when a plate has been read, and that information is retained in a Department of Public Safety database in Waterbury for 18 months. The Vermont American Civil Liberties Union believes that the information could be used to follow the movements of individuals, which in turn affects individual privacy. Nearly 50 of these systems are in use statewide, and cost between $20,000 and $25,000.

One municipality that uses an ALPR system is Wilmington. According to town manager Scott Murphy, the ALPR was acquired nearly two years ago when police chief Joe Szarejko took advantage of a Department of Homeland Security grant that paid for the system. While Szarejko could not be reached for comment, Murphy explained that the device only makes the community safer. “We’ve picked up suspected felons, or stopped people speeding through town or who were speeding through another town,” said Murphy. “It’s a safety-related issue and regular police work, and we’ve done a good job of protecting residents and visitors who want to live and shop in a safe location.”

Murphy also said that there is no need for the devices to be looked at as a privacy issue for residents. “This is minor compared to surveillance in major cities. This is small, it’s for a small town, it’s not overdone, it’s just an effort to keep the public safe.”

But not all local officials are convinced of the necessity of ALPRs for performing police work. Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark says he’s not interested in using ALPRs as long as they remain a point of controversy. “I think it has the potential to be a great tool for law enforcement,” said Clark. “I still have concerns and I’m not ready to take that step. I want to buy things that I feel support what I’m doing in my community.”

While he understands how ALPRs can be an effective crime-fighting tool, Clark’s issue is with record retention time, which was reduced in 2013 from four years to 18 months. He believes that laws don’t always keep up with technology.

“The intent and the concept was to allow officers to automatically do what they’re doing manually,” said Clark. “I don’t think the intent was to create this data base. If the system did nothing more than run the plate and say ‘This vehicle is registered, and the owner is not wanted’ and then that information disappeared, I don’t think people would have an issue with it.”

But Clark said he can also understand why police departments in rural towns may find the devices useful. Some towns in Vermont are small communities with a minimal staff who need to maximize what they do to keep their communities safe. Other towns are resort areas that see a dramatic rise in population during different seasons or on a weekend, and police need to monitor who and what is coming into the community.

Keeping a database of license plate readings is something that other law enforcement agencies have taken full advantage of and see as an important part of fighting crime statewide. One such agency is the Vermont State Police, who feature nine mobile ALPRs throughout the state, including one used by the Shaftsbury barracks. State police believe that keeping a record of where a license plate was recorded can help any number of investigations.

Lt. Michael Macarilla, director of the Vermont State Police information and analysis unit, says that it’s important to discern that the information retained by ALPRs is not tracking movements by individuals, it simply allows police to know where an individual license plate was at any given time.

If there is a homicide or missing person case within a specific area, police can check ALPR data and see what vehicles were in the area at the time. State police will also deploy ALPRs to a specific area where a crime has occurred to get an idea of who was in the area at the time the crime occurred. One such case was following the Boston Marathon bombing, when state police deployed ALPRs to the southern part of the state to better detect whether a suspect might be heading to Canada.

According to Macarilla, the data retained by ALPRs is kept safely aggregated by the Department of Public Safety and is only accessible by members of the Vermont Information and Analysis Center (formerly the Vermont Fusion Center). The records can only be accessed after a law enforcement agent identifies him or herself, and provides an FBI originating agency identification number and a case number. Macarilla says that with how helpful ALPR retention is, the newly shortened 18-month retention time is not enough.

“Four years wasn’t an arbitrary number,” said Macarilla. “Four years is the retention rate for in-car video systems that are located in all vehicles in our field force division. Every car that drives by where that trooper is stopped is recorded on video. When we developed the policy for LPRs we said ‘If we’re holding onto car videos, this is at least similar to that if every car that drives by is getting recorded on video.’”

The ACLU-VT argues that when data collected from each ALPR is aggregated, the various GPS locations at which an ALPR read the plate, as well as a date and time stamp, can reveal where a person has traveled, and is in essence tracking an individual’s movements without a warrant.

Macarilla contends that while ALPRs may record license plates in multiple locations, they don’t need a warrant because they’re taking note of where a license plate was at any given moment, not an individual. It is up to an individual officer stopping a vehicle, a judge, or a jury to determine the identity of the driver.

“Are they a crime-fighting tool? Absolutely,” said Macarilla. “You’re not tracking anything, you know where a license plate was at a moment in time, you don’t know where a person was.”
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