License Plate Readers Solve Crimes but Prompt Privacy Concerns

License-plate readers have the potential to crack down on stolen vehicles and help police locate criminals, but at what cost?

by Theodore Decker, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / August 31, 2015
Minnesota lawmakers are considering a license plate data retention law. Shutterstock

(TNS) -- The picture snapped by an automatic license-plate reader in a New York City police cruiser revealed to Whitehall detectives last week that they had found what they’d been looking for: the car driven by the suspect in an Aug. 17 triple homicide.

The same technology allowed a Virginia state trooper to realize almost immediately that the suspect in Wednesday’s killing of two TV journalists had just driven past her on a freeway west of Washington, D.C.

And on the Northeast Side recently, a Franklin County deputy’s forethought to enter the license-plate number of a despondent woman into his plate reader may have prevented a suicide, authorities said.

Law-enforcement agencies cite such successes as evidence that automatic license-plate readers can pay big dividends as police hunt stolen cars, endangered citizens and wanted felons.

As use of the technology has increased, though, so have the privacy concerns of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Automatic license-plate readers began appearing in central Ohio police cars and were affixed to freeway infrastructure about eight years ago. The State Highway Patrol, Columbus police and Franklin County sheriff’s office all use readers, as do many smaller departments.

The readers take pictures of all the license plates in their field of vision, on cars that are both moving and parked, as an officer goes about daily patrol duties. A car equipped with a reader can scan thousands of plates each day.

Software then compares the plate numbers with those on law-enforcement “hot lists.” Agencies keep the digital pile of collected numbers for varying lengths of time, and they can be picked through retroactively by police looking for a particular plate.

It is the warehousing of aggregate plate information that most worries groups such as the ACLU, because the bulk of the collected numbers undoubtedly belong to law-abiding citizens.

“Our problem is when law enforcement uses this technology to keep an eye on people who otherwise are not engaged in criminal activity,” said Gary Daniels, spokesman for the ACLU of Ohio.

“That’s what concerns the ACLU: when all of us are watched by the government simply because the technology exists for them to do so.”

The State Highway Patrol began using the technology in 2004 at fixed points along the Ohio Turnpike, said Lt. Craig Cvetan, a patrol spokesman. The patrol also has 12 cars equipped with the readers.

“The data is not stored, shared or collected,” he said. “It’s just comparing the plates that it reads to that hot list.”

Columbus police have about 20 of the units, Sgt. Rich Weiner, spokesman for the division, said.

“We find them beneficial in the bigger crimes,” he said.

When Whitehall police entered the license-plate number linked to a triple homicide into the reader network last week, they discovered that a police car in Queens had snapped a picture of the white Dodge Charger just 30 minutes earlier, Whitehall Sgt. Dan Kelso said.

“There’s our car,” he said. “It’s parked right next to that tree in front of that building.”

They alerted New York police. Although the car had moved by the time officers returned to the spot, the sighting affirmed that suspect Daveron Minnis was nearby, Kelso said. NYPD officers hit on the plate again on Tuesday night as the car was on the move. Officers boxed it in and took Minnis into custody. He is now charged with three counts of murder.

In Whitehall, police have programmed their own readers to filter out smaller infractions.

“We don’t hit off that kind of stuff,” Kelso said. “We hit off of major stuff, or else these things might be ringing every 2 minutes.”

The Franklin County sheriff’s office maintains the reader database for agencies in a 15-county area. The office also has 30 readers installed in its cars, said Chief Deputy Jim Gilbert.

In their own recent success, deputies were searching for a suicidal woman when the reader in one deputy’s cruiser alerted that she had just passed him near I-270 and Rt. 161. The deputy stopped the woman, who was hysterically distraught, Gilbert said. Beside her in the car was a suicide note and 100 feet of rope.

“She had a method in the car to kill herself,” Sheriff Zach Scott said. “She was looking for a spot.” The deputy took her for mental-health care.

Scott said the sheriff’s office purges its collected records after 90 days, a period of time that he feels strikes a balance between the protection of individual rights and the need for detectives to look back in time when investigating crimes.

“In this case,” Gilbert said, “it potentially saved a woman’s life.”

©2015 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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