These two automatic license plate readers on New York City's Mott Street are high speed OCR scanners that read up to 20 plates a second. The system crosschecks database(s) of stolen cars, unregistered cars, cars linked to people on warrants and other offenses. Flickr/Joe Hall

As evidence goes, no one doubts it was crucial 10 days ago in helping nab Kansas City’s alleged “highway shooter.”

Illinois license plate G86-5203.

From late March to mid-April, the terrorizing shooter set drivers’ nerves on edge. Twelve cars hit, their metal bodies pierced or windows broken by .380-caliber bullets fired by an unknown assailant taking potshots from the road. At least two victims were wounded. A mother found a bullet had ripped through the door next to her daughter.

Remain watchful, authorities advised nervous motorists.

What the bearer of that incriminating license plate may not have known is that the Kansas City Police Department’s automated license plate readers — digital cameras set atop police cruisers — were already on the case.

In the past year, plate readers had snapped pictures of G86-5203 at least four times while also recording precise Global Positioning System data on exactly where it was in place and time.

When a savvy witness, suspicious of the behavior of the driver of a green Dodge Neon, jotted down the Illinois plate and told police, it took little time for investigators to search Kansas City’s collection of 11 million digital images to link the plate to various locations, an address and eventually a person.

Mohammed Pedro Whitaker, 27, of Jackson County, was arrested April 17 and charged with 18 felony counts.

“It’s worthwhile every day,” Police Maj. Michael Corwin, commander of the department’s Law Enforcement Research Center, said of the technology. “We find people with warrants, stolen autos. It’s helped us solve burglary cases. You name the type of case, we’ve had successes in almost every arena, stealing to homicides.”

What you may not realize — and what civil libertarians, privacy advocates and law enforcement officials are trying to reconcile — is that there is also a good chance that police in Kansas City, Lenexa, Overland Park, Blue Springs and at least nine other area law enforcement agencies have captured your plates too.

In front of your home or at your place of worship, while you drive to work or park outside your paramour’s place. And once your plates have been photographed, no current federal, Missouri or Kansas regulations limit how long the information can be kept. In most cases, you are prevented from seeing what information law enforcement may have gathered on your plates.

“You know, I think the average driver is probably aware that there are license plate readers out there,” said Allie Bohm, an advocacy and policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

“But I think people would be surprised by license plate reader ubiquity, particularly in small towns, and how much data on completely innocent people is being stored and how long that data is being stored in many cases.”

In short, in an era when technology continues to erode personal privacy and the National Security Agency’s ability to listen in on private phone conversations remains fresh in the public mind, the debate over whether ALPRs give police greater license to protect or to pry continues to deepen.

Privacy advocates readily admit license plate readers are powerful law enforcement tools.

Developed in Great Britain in 1979, they came to the attention of U.S. law enforcement agencies with speed in the 2000s after 9/11. Today most major U.S. cities have ALPRs; New York City has a few hundred. Suburbs and smaller communities have followed suit.

In the Kansas City area in the past five years, at least 13 law enforcement agencies have begun operating a combined 38 readers.

Kansas City police have 12. Overland Park has nine, using them to archive a database of nearly 5.3 million license plate images. Lenexa, Gladstone, Blue Springs, Olathe and others all have their own, at a price of more than $22,000 each.

“I could be parked on the highway and I could have a car pass me at 100 miles an hour and it will still catch the license plate,” Grandview officer Travis Hille, 24, said as he demonstrated the police department’s mobile unit.

The units typically have three digital cameras mounted at different angles to catch license plates to the front and rear, left and right, passing and oncoming, at speeds up to 160 mph. They work day and night.

With a capacity to record as many as 1,800 license plates a minute, a single reader can sift through more license plates for violations in a day than an officer could likely check in a lifetime.

Inside the car sits a computer connected to a vast database regularly updated with a “hot list” of the plates of vehicles whose registered drivers are associated with an active warrant.

The car could be stolen. The plate could be stolen. There could be an AMBER Alert, Silver Alert, kidnapping or bank robbery associated with the plate. More frequently, it’s nothing more than a warrant for the driver’s arrest because of unpaid parking fines.

Hille flipped open the patrol car’s laptop and showed a display of 10 boxes: stolen vehicle, wanted person, stolen plate, suspended/revoked, scofflaw, stolen out of state, violent gang, sexual offender, tax scofflaw and other.

Depending on which boxes he chooses, the system will alert Hille to a plate connected to any one or number of them. The instant the system “hits,” it sounds a wailing alarm.

“A lot of times I’ll drive through the apartment complexes looking for stolen cars and that kind of stuff,” he said as he rolled through a complex barely a mile from the police station. “People will steal a car, drive it over to an apartment complex and just drop the car.”

No stopping. He rolled through one lot to the next, past 50 or more cars.

“It’s reading all these plates,” he said.

The alarm sounded. Hille braked. A computerized voice intoned, “Wanted or missing person.” Not a stolen car.

He checked the computer screen. It bore a picture of the plate, its number and letters. A keystroke would give a map of the car’s exact location.

Clicking on the highlighted “hit” provided GPS longitude and latitude, the time and date, and the registered driver’s information: name, birthday, race and gender — black male, 5 feet 11 inches, 165 pounds.

Hille checked the warrants. The owner had two: a lane change violation and a seat belt violation from February. The guy probably had just forgotten to pay his tickets, so Hille moved on.

The overwhelming majority of hits tend to be small. Data from various police departments, in fact, routinely shows that of the thousands and more license plates the systems scan, only a fraction of 1 percent typically lead to hits. Because most hits are for minor infractions, even fewer lead to citations or arrests.

Still, in the two years that Hille has used the Grandview department’s system, he has helped locate the perpetrators of armed robberies and an armed carjacking, six car thefts and a bank fraud case.

On the road

Kansas City, Mo., and Overland Park, Kan., lead in the number of license plate reader units in use in the area.

Missouri

  • Blue Springs 2
  • Gladstone 1
  • Grandview 1
  • Independence 0
  • Kansas City 12
  • Lee’s Summit 1
  • Liberty 0
  • North Kansas City 1
  • Raytown 0
  • Jackson County 2
  • Platte County 1
  • Clay County NA
  • Missouri Highway Patrol 0

Kansas

  • Fairway 0
  • Kansas City, Kan. 0
  • Merriam 0
  • Mission 0
  • Leawood 0
  • Lenexa 5
  • Olathe 1
  • Overland Park 9
  • Prairie Village 1
  • Roeland Park 0
  • Shawnee 1
  • Johnson County 0
  • Wyandotte County 0
  • Kansas Highway Patrol 0

Source: The agencies

In Gladstone, said Capt. Bill Willoughby, the department’s reader “has been very, very successful in recovering stolen cars.” At night, he said, his officers often run the system through the parking lot of the local casino.

“I would say we average one to two stolen recoveries a week,” he said. “And with the casino camera system, not only do we recover the stolen vehicle, but we also arrest the person who drove up with it.”

Police said the technology’s potential to help solve large crimes is invaluable. If a child is abducted and tossed in a car with a known plate, the plate readers can pick out that car among thousands and thousands of others, even if it is speeding 85 mph down a highway or driving through fog or in the black of night.

In Boone County, license plate readers have been credited with helping catch a Pennsylvania murder suspect.

Privacy advocates concede the point. Few have any problem using readers to identify lawbreakers.

“It’s a legitimate use for the technology,” said Bohm of the ACLU.

It’s the rest of the people they worry about. Innocent people.

While police are getting hits on plates that might be associated with crimes, they’re also snapping and storing pictures of the plates of thousands upon thousands of other people going about their daily lives, complete with GPS coordinates and time tags.

Law enforcement officials note that these regular plate images are not linked to the same kind of personal information that becomes available for plates on the hot list.

But Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit with the stated mission of protecting privacy in the digital age, argued that it would be easy for police to pull up a set of plate images and tie them to a person.

If one gathers enough plate images over time — plates scanned driving to work, in front of a medical clinic, at a political rally — it’s like providing police the puzzle pieces to aspects of one’s private life.

“When you store that data, even over a few days or a few months, you do have a picture of people’s pathways in life,” Lynch said.

Law enforcement officials such as Lenexa’s Maj. Dawn Layman argue that the automated license plate readers (Lenexa has five) are doing nothing that police haven’t done for years, calling in plates to dispatchers. License plates are public, and in the public realm, it is legal for anyone to snap pictures.

“You could stand out on the corner of 87th and Pflumm with a TV camera and you could stay there all day long and capture tags that are running by,” Layman said.

Lynch countered, “There is a big difference between one officer writing down the number of your plate one time in one place and a piece of technology collecting 14,000 plates at one time.”

Nor are police regular citizens, she said.

“The difference in my book is that law enforcement has the ability to put you in jail and deprive you of your liberty, whether it’s for one day or for many years,” Lynch said.

The Frontier Foundation and the ACLU are hardly the only ones concerned about the massive databases of plates that police now possess.

Currently, no single standard regulates how long police can stockpile plate images. Only a few states even have laws on their books governing license plate readers.

Maine requires that all images that aren’t being used as part of a criminal investigation be deleted within 21 days. In Arkansas, it’s after 150 days. In Virginia, the attorney general last year ruled that police could not collect data on every passing car, only on those that are part of investigations. New Hampshire, with a few limited exceptions, has all but banned license plate readers, as has Utah. A major ALPR manufacturer is challenging the Utah law in court.

But in New Jersey, images are allowed to be kept and mined for criminal cases for up to five years.

When Lee’s Summit police got their license plate reader in late 2013, they originally planned to keep records for five years. Concerned about privacy, the City Council intervened. Any data not used in an investigation is now expunged after 30 days. The council ruled that all readers had to be mobile; no fixed readers could be trained on cars from poles or buildings.

“It was my belief that at that point it would become a surveillance tool rather than a law enforcement tool,” said Councilman Derek Holland.

Despite the restriction, Lee’s Summit resident Bob Gough opposes the license plate readers. To press his point, he has filed suit against the city, asking that all plate records the police have gathered be made open and available through the state’s Sunshine Law.

“What I have a problem with is the police knowing who my girlfriend is, where I have a beer, where I go to church, what gun store I go to, when I went,” Gough said. “Every police department has a rotten apple to two. I decide to go to the Holiday Inn at 3 in the afternoon and leave an hour later; I don’t want the police keeping track of that.”

In Kansas City, records are being kept indefinitely pending legislation that determines otherwise, Corwin said.

Such legislation is now in process.

Of course, many police departments would prefer to keep the license plate images they have amassed for at least several years. Some crimes, such as sexual assaults, can go unreported for months or years. Should a victim step forward today and claim an assault from years ago, police say, it could only help a case to have photographs of the suspect’s car at the scene.

Destroying data too quickly will make that less likely. Data linking the alleged highway shooter to an address might have been purged.

In the Missouri Senate last week, a bill to delete license plate reader information after 30 days if it’s not being used in an investigation passed in a 31-0 vote. Senate Bill 599, which has been sent to the House, also would make it a felony to misuse data collected by law enforcement.

“People drive by these LPRs every day and there currently are no restrictions on whether that information stays or goes,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican. “We’re just trying to strike a balance between the right to privacy and using the material to stop criminals.”

Going perhaps one step further, the Missouri Senate Appropriations Committee inserted a provision into the budgets of several departments, including the Department of Public Safety, barring them at least for the time being from using funds that flow through the state to buy license plate scanners for law enforcement.

“Just like with all things, there are advantages and disadvantages (to the readers),” said Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican. “In my perfect world, we wouldn’t live in a world where there would be these devices tracking crime. But it is kind of like Pandora’s box. It’s already been opened. We’re not going to stop it at the state level, but at least we can slow it down until we work through the proper use for them.”

Corwin said that if people want to be concerned about the use of plate reader data, they might focus less on law enforcement and more on private companies.

Vehicle repossession companies, taxi companies, tow companies: Many own readers and have amassed large databases that even the police will use during their investigations. Just because the police purge their files doesn’t mean similar information isn’t already in private hands.

“They aren’t bound by privacy laws,” Corwin said. “Police law enforcement is using it appropriately. We are bound by rules. But they can sell it (the data) to anybody at anytime. Your wife wants to know where you’ve been? These places could sell it, run that plate and, technically, give a map of where you’ve been.

“We use it to protect the public. We’re using it for good purposes. But because we’re a government agency, we’re the ones who get poked in the face when we try to do the right thing.”

©2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)