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License Plate Reader May Face Ban in North Carolina

After years of unlicensed operations in North Carolina, a tech firm used by police to capture license plate data now risks being banned from business in the state if it misses a key application deadline.

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(TNS) — After years of unlicensed operations in North Carolina, an Atlanta tech firm used by police to capture license plate data now risks being banned from doing business in the state if it misses a key application deadline.

In a consent order presented in Wake Superior Court on Wednesday, Flock Safety agreed to seek a license from the Alarm Systems Licensing Board, which regulates professional installers and technicians of security systems across the state.

Flock’s compact cameras, often solar-powered and installed along roadways, automatically capture license plates and other details — color, make, type and even the presence of bumper stickers — on all vehicles that pass by. That information is stored in a database accessible to law enforcement, typically for 30 days. And the system can trigger alerts when it detects vehicles police are looking for.

More than 70 law enforcement agencies across North Carolina use the company’s devices, including police departments in Raleigh and Greensboro, The News & Observer has found. That amounts to hundreds of license plate readers capturing data along North Carolina roadways.

Under the order, the company says it will submit a completed license application to the board before June 1.

It’s the second time Flock has made such promises, documents show, but the first time the company submitted its assurances to a court. Wake County Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier Jr. said he would sign the order this week — meaning failure to comply could trigger a permanent injunction ordering the company to cease all operations in North Carolina.

“I’m confident Flock Safety will adhere to the terms of the consent order and I’m pleased Flock Safety plans to obtain licensure from the Alarm Systems Licensing Board,” Paul Sherwin, whose division at the state Department of Public Safety supports the board’s operations, said in an email Wednesday. “This is the outcome the board has hoped for since initiating its investigation of Flock Safety in January 2022.”

In an email Wednesday, Flock spokesperson Holly Beilin said the company has hired a master electrician and is “gathering the necessary paperwork and background checks to submit for a license” to comply with the consent order.

Law enforcement agencies have praised Flock’s technology for its ability to help solve crimes and find missing people.

But organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have expressed concerns about the privacy implications of a mass surveillance system capable of capturing data on millions of vehicles not suspected of any crimes.

North Carolina, meanwhile, isn’t the only state where Flock has run into regulatory problems.

Forbes reported last month that the company has installed hundreds of cameras in Florida, Illinois and South Carolina without the proper permits, prompting rebukes from transportation and local government officials.

Licensing battle with Flock has lasted years

The licensing fight in North Carolina prompted Rozier in late October 2023 to order the company to stop installing the cameras. His preliminary injunction, however, permitted the company to use a licensed third-party for existing maintenance and the installation of new devices.

Flock has done that to secure new contracts with North Carolina law enforcement agencies, like a deal with UNC-Chapel Hill’s police department signed last month.

After Rozier’s ruling, Flock spokesperson Holly Beilin said Wednesday that the company “took the fastest path to operation, and we identified four third-party electrical contractors, and they have been supervising all Flock work in conjunction with the court order.”

A permanent injunction would limit the company’s operations much further.

The consent order presented Wednesday says that if Flock misses the deadline, a judge could bar Flock — without any additional hearings — “from engaging in the alarm systems business, or holding itself out as engaged in the alarm systems business” without a license. Flock could also be on the hook for the costs of the board’s lawsuit against the company, filed in February 2023 after a year-long back-and-forth.

If Flock meets its deadline — and the board grants the company a license at its July meeting — it will bring to a close a fight that has simmered behind the scenes for more than two years.

By state law, companies that install cameras and other alarm systems that detect illegal activities must obtain a license from the Alarm Systems Licensing Board. The intent is to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive security information, Sherwin told The N&O last year.

But since it began soliciting contracts in North Carolina among law enforcement, businesses and homeowners associations in the years after it was founded in 2017, Flock Safety has never obtained that license.

Since the licensing board began its investigation into Flock in January 2022, the company has argued, both to the board and to the courts, that its systems do not meet the legal definition of an alarm system.

But in May 2023, an attorney for the company signed a proposed settlement agreement that Flock would apply for licensure by June 1, 2023. Flock also agreed it would not “pursue, bid or enter new contracts until licensed.”

That agreement was never formally submitted to the court.

And in the ensuing months, ASLB attorney Jeffrey Gray complained to the company that its attempts at licensure had been “half-hearted, at best.”

By the time Rozier issued his preliminary injunction in late October, the company had already signed up several additional North Carolina clients, including Apex and Wake Forest.

The licensing effort, meanwhile, has stalled.

The Flock supervisor who filed for a license in June 2023 — after the original settlement deadline — withdrew his application in December.

Sherwin said Wednesday that no one from the company has reapplied since.

Flock still growing across the state

The court’s preliminary injunction has checked the company’s growth somewhat.

In the fall, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled a 3-year, $212,000 contract with Flock after the ASLB notified campus officials that the company wasn’t licensed here. After signing a new contract in February, the university said the company will use a licensed third-party to install the devices on campus.

Flock’s licensing issues have caused problems for other law enforcement agencies as well, including those at Apex and WakeMed.

“While we have plans to install 25 at the entrances to WakeMed properties, the injunction has slowed down the forward progress in that Flock is now needing to contract with a third party to do the installs and maintenance,” Kristin Kelly, a spokesperson for WakeMed, said in an email to The N&O last week.

Flock spokesperson Josh Thomas told The N&O in an email in November that North Carolina is the only state to require such a license across the more than 40 states where the company operates.

In her statement Wednesday, Flock’s Beilin said the company initially disagreed with the state’s interpretation on licensing based on a nearby precedent. The state of Tennessee, which she said has a similar alarm systems law, “agreed with Flock that we are not a traditional alarm system and were not subject to those regulations.”

“Therefore, we did not pursue an alarm license until a court could settle the matter,” Beilin said in an email.

Kevin Walters, a spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Commerce and Insurance, which oversees that state’s licensing program, said the legislature narrowed the definition of an “alarm system” in 2021. Later that year, the department determined that Flock’s products and services “fell outside of an ‘alarm system’ camera under the new definition” and closed a pending complaint against the company.

© 2024 The Charlotte Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.