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License Plate Readers Lack Regulation in Connecticut

Red light and speed cameras in the Constitution State are heavily regulated — but automated license plate readers are not. Proponents highlight their role in finding vehicles and people, but critics raise concerns about privacy and surveillance.

It took an act of law to allow municipalities to install red light and speed cameras. It requires towns to file extensive plans with the state for the locations of automated traffic control devices and must by law provide a status update 18 months later.

The regulations around the use of red light and speed cameras are so onerous that West Hartford had to revise its rollout timeframe.

"It just seems like a lot to get the program off the ground, and that was a little surprising," said Duane Martin, director of community development for West Hartford.

By contrast, there are few, if any, regulations regarding the use of license plate readers or the data they collect in Connecticut. There is no information made public about precisely how many license plate readers are used in the state, though they are used by many police departments in addition to many private companies, civil liberties experts say.

"Odds are, most drivers in Connecticut have been scanned hundreds if not thousands of times collectively throughout the state because the readers are so prevalent at this point," said David McGuire, Connecticut ACLU executive director.

Proponents, such as Cheshire police chief and former president of the Connecticut Police Chief's Association, Neil Dryfe, say license plate readers are used to track and identify stolen cars, suspects in crime or missing people. Dryfe called license plate readers a "force multiplier."

"The ability to get an alert through the technology when a stolen car or a missing person or somebody who's the subject of an Amber Alert who drives into town, I think it's invaluable to be able to do that," he said.

Critics argue that there are few differences between red light cameras and license plate readers, and while the former is heavily regulated, the latter is not regulated nearly as much and often in the hands of private companies. They raise concerns over privacy issues, data retention and sharing, and an inequitable use of surveillance technology in minority communities.

Though individual police departments may have policies in place, there is no overarching statewide policy and no agency that oversees the use of license plate readers, but individual police departments may have standing rules on the allowable uses of license plate readers and the data they collect.

"There's really not much for us to glean in terms of how they're being used. All we see is the odd press release when perhaps the license plate reader plays some role in the apprehension of a suspect," McGuire said. "We are often really concerned about the use of technologies like license plate readers because they amplify the power and coverage of police, essentially, and they're often done in ways that are completely unchecked by regulators but also, many times town residents are paying for these cameras and these programs without even knowing and never being told what the public safety benefit or need is here."

When asked to explain the difference between red light cameras and license plate readers, state Department of Transportation spokesman Josh Morgan said red light cameras and other automatic traffic control devices are used for enforcement, whereas "there's no enforcement mechanism" behind license plate readers.

"When we're saying, 'automated traffic enforcement devices,' that 'enforcement' part is key," he said. "That is yes, taking pictures of license plates, but then also having that verified by law enforcement and sending out either a warning or a citation."


In 2011, when the legislature was considering a bill that would have governed the use of license plate readers on police cruisers, then-Redding Police Chief Douglas Fuchs testified during a legislative hearing that each license plate reader could cost $18,000 and that, as a result of the high cost, there were relatively few in use.

"I believe that there are less than 15 readers currently in use throughout the entire state," he said.

Three years later, Carroll Hughes, then the contract lobbyist for the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, testified that, "These devices are in probably about 64 of our hundred police departments, including municipal and university departments."

As of 2024, it is unknown how many license plate readers are in use in Connecticut. Dryfe said Cheshire has 12 license plate readers in fixed positions, with another 13 on the back of police cruisers. Rick Green, spokesman for the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said the state police have 14 license plate readers attached to cruisers and one stationary reader, almost as many as there were in the entire state in 2011.

"The cameras work by using technology to read a license plate and then transmitting that information to the police cruiser's mobile data terminal," Green said by email. "The trooper in the cruiser then must individually verify the result and confirm that the correct plate was read before making a motor vehicle stop."

Green said, "Information from a license plate reader may reveal an unregistered motor vehicle, suspended registration, a stolen vehicle, insurance compliance issues, a registered owner listed as a missing person, a registered owner listed as a wanted person, and vehicles wanted for use in a crime."

"In 2018, troopers from Troop A made a traffic stop using license plate readers after receiving an alert about a motor vehicle that was sought in connection with a New York City homicide," he said. "The traffic stop led to the arrest of a homicide suspect and later an award for the trooper who was conducting traffic enforcement that day."

Most of the license plate readers currently in use in Connecticut are affixed to cars, either police cruisers or vehicles owned by private companies, according to Eric Jackson, executive director of UConn's Connecticut Transportation Institute, which studies traffic and crash data in the state

Jackson said "there's no citations issued" by a license plate reader. "It's a tool that law enforcement can use, either as they're driving through parking lots or as they're driving down the road."

"There's no automated enforcement piece of just license plate readers alone," Jackson said. "I've heard of towns installing license plate readers for maybe on- and off-ramps where they can kind of monitor if a stolen vehicle enters town. But those are fairly rare and far and few between."

McGuire said there's a difference between the license plate readers used by individual police officers in the course of their duty, and those in fixed locations in a municipality. Those readers have been popping up increasingly in Connecticut in recent years, but police have, in some cases, declined to provide their locations.

"An officer sitting in his or her cruiser manually running license plates or noting them down on a on a pad is very different than setting up a stationary scanner, scanning tens of thousands of vehicles a day and cataloging them and keeping them in a database potentially forever," he said. "They have now added the ability to create these geo-fences and see who's coming and going, track individual vehicles, flag vehicles, with no oversight at all."

When asked if he knew how many license plate readers are being used in Connecticut, Deputy Senate Republican Leader Paul Cicarella, a Republican, said, "I do not. I do know departments are using them."

Cicarella has proposed a bill this year to make stationary license plate readers more accessible to municipal police departments. He said the purpose is "increasing the amount of license plate cameras in certain areas" to combat theft.

"We want to try to give the tools to the officers to help these residents that are calling them every night because the officers are just as frustrated with people that are continuously victimized from the car breakage or car thefts," he said. "So we are hoping to get funding to allow some of the municipalities to purchase additional LPRs."


Max Isaacs, senior staff attorney at the Policing Project at New York University School of Law, said that without standardized policies on data retention, police departments can use the technology to build "a permanent record if they want of everywhere someone's traveled in their vehicle."

"They're basically compiling a database of everyone's locations and movements over time and without policies in place, they can retain that data indefinitely," he said.

There have also been instances of misuse of the technology and the data it collects.

Last year, an Old Saybrook police officer was suspended after he was charged with third-degree computer crime for allegedly checking a woman's license plate to obtain her name and personal information in hopes of securing a date.

A State Police Trooper was arrested last year after police said he ran the license plate of a woman he was dating, believing the car was owned by another man.

"When you have a world in which police have the capability of setting up ALPRs at every intersection or along all of the major roads," Isaacs said "they're going to be able to identify with some precision where you were traveling or who you're meeting with or with whom you're associating."

Isaacs also said that surveillance technology in general, including automatic license plate readers, raise "equity concerns, whether they're being deployed in ways that might exacerbate existing disparities and enforcement of laws by police."

"ALPRs are becoming more advanced. They do a lot more nowadays than just to license plates. They can detect the model of a car the color, there are all sorts of data analytics that can be used to do sort of predictive analytics," he said. "In my mind. license plate readers have a pretty profound impact on on privacy and on individual civil liberties."


McGuire said the ACLU has been pushing for regulation of license plate readers for decades, at least since "way back in 2011."

"I learned through some informal channels that there was a collective of police departments in the Hartford area that were deploying license plate readers, mostly mobile license plate readers at that time, and they were aggregating the data," he said. "They were essentially creating a giant pool of data that they could draw from with zero oversight, zero regulation."

There were several attempts to legislatively regulate the use of license plate readers and the data they collect, but McGuire said "I don't even think they got out of committee because the law enforcement lobby was so strong and pushed back and basically said this was a burgeoning technology, and they didn't, they didn't need any regulation."

The unfettered spread of license plate readers, and development of artificial intelligence, has made the issue both more important and more difficult, McGuire said.

"The genie's out of the bottle there, it's so widespread now," he said.

Isaacs said other states have attempted to enact statute and policies around the use of license plate readers, with some success.

"Some states have enacted laws with reporting requirements," he said. "They basically need to disclose the number of LPRs you're operating."

And even when there are fewer regulations, Isaacs said appropriations act as something of a backstop.

"There's some form of procurement process in which there would be at least some minimal oversight over the acquisition and deployment of that technology. But the trend that we're seeing is more and more surveillance in the hands of private entities," Isaacs said. "You've basically circumvented all of those democratic checks when a private company or homeowners association puts up an ALPR network and voluntarily shares information with police."

Dryfe added "There were police departments before license plate readers and if somebody took them all the way we would continue to to have to provide public safety services to to our communities. That said, he did call them "a valuable investigative tool."


While license plate readers often tie back to law enforcement, Hartford is among the communities contracting with private companies to track tax scofflaws. The plan, city assessor John Philip said, was to look for "cars that are physically here that are not registered here." But the program performed better than expected, and the city was able to identify residents not caught up on their tax payments.

"Unfortunately, people that didn't do anything wrong deliberately got caught up in that broad dragnet, but that is the law of the state," he said.

That company, Shelton-based Municipal Tax Services, canvassed the city "in the overnight hours, just collecting raw data, pictures of license plates," Philip explained. That data would then be run through various databases and, if there was "a hit," the company "would send people a letter: 'You may have a tax obligation to the city of Hartford. Please call us or write to us at this phone number address.'"

MTS declined to comment for this story.

"We do make decisions about, should we cut this person loose or not and why? Because folks have all kinds of individual stories. I'm probably a little less rigid than the company we hired," Philip said. "If somebody got to me complaining about, 'Hey, this is totally unfair, whatever their story was, I would ask MTS, the company we hired, for a report and they would, they would send us basically a report of their findings on that particular person, and if I thought it was not a strong case, we would remove them."

In fact, so many Hartford city residents were caught in the dragnet that a decision was made to make the pool significantly smaller. State law allows municipalities to assess taxes for the current year and three prior years, but Hartford decided to tighten that timeframe.

"It would have been such a hit for the people of Hartford, even if they weren't deliberately avoiding taxes here, that ultimately, the mayor decided that he did not want to go back three years but rather just do the current year and the prior year," Philip said.

©2024 the New Haven Register, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.