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License Plate Readers Net Arrests, Raise Privacy Concerns

In the months since Holmes Beach, Fla., installed five special cameras around the city, police have made more than 40 arrests and 127 traffic stops. Officials say it’s a win, but privacy advocates see a problem.

(TNS) — Five innocuous black boxes are perched on poles throughout Holmes Beach.

Most motorists won't pay them any attention. But every car that passes through the city is scanned by at least one of the devices. Their camera eyes take snapshots of the back of each car and instantly analyze the attached license plate.

If there's a problem with a plate — a suspended license, a wanted criminal or even a stolen car — the boxes automatically alert every police officer in the area.

When the system spots something suspicious, a robotic radio voice chimes in over all of the Holmes Beach Police cars, indicating a "medium priority" or a "high priority" alert. On their onboard computers, officers are told the car's make and year, the direction of travel and the license plate number. They also receive a picture of the vehicle.

Once they get the signal, police can confirm the tag and then easily track down the car and make an arrest. Officers get alerts from the system about once every five minutes, but it's up to them to decide what to investigate and what to let go.

Holmes Beach Police Chief William Tokajer said that the plate readers have led to 127 traffic stops and more than 40 arrests, with 18 of the drivers taken into custody since the devices were installed in April.

To Tokajer, that sends a clear message: Criminals should be afraid of Holmes Beach.

Holmes Beach is similar to a lot of other Gulf beach cities. The permanent population is low, around 4,300, but the city receives more than three times that number in visitors every day.

Over holidays, that number can get much higher. Tokajer tracked traffic scanned by the license plate readers over the Fourth of July week, and found that 234,845 vehicles entered and left Holmes Beach. Among those, the system pinged 1,993 sanctioned drivers. Two were driving stolen cars.

But because of officers' discretion and limited resources, his officers have made only 127 traffic stops since the system was first installed. About 14 percent of those stops led to a physical arrest, but Tokajer said that "a lot of tickets" and several notices to appear have been issued as well.

The system cost $105,000 for a five-year lease, including the plate readers and the software installed in each vehicle. Hiring one officer for that same period would cost around $200,000.

Privacy concerns

Michael Barfield, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, thinks the readers are an "egregious" privacy violation.

"License plate readers are a terrible invasion of privacy, and in the wrong hands can be used inappropriately," Barfield told the Herald-Tribune.

His concerns with the readers are numerous. For one, he believes they can lead to detention without cause if the driver is operating a family member's or a friend's vehicle.

Most concerning, however, is that some databases established by license plate scanners can be used to track individuals and put together a log of their daily routine. Barfield requested records in Sarasota several years ago on license plate reader data there, he said, and he was able to figure out where he went every day.

The readers were exempted from public records in 2018, Barfield said, but he is still concerned that some police officers may misuse the data. If misused, there is the potential to put people in danger.

In March, a former Bradenton police officer was arrested for using the department's access to a state database to target women for dates. Barfield cited an officer in Naples who would speed at more than 100 mph to track down women of a particular height, weight, race and eye color with information retrieved by local license plate readers.

"Law enforcement doesn't want to talk about these things, but all of that data is being aggregated into a nationwide network, and our privacy rights are being violated to ferret out low-level crime," Barfield said.

The ACLU of Florida president said he thinks that the system can be used fairly if it is used only to catch violent criminals and data retention is kept to a minimum.

"We shouldn't allow everyone's privacy to be invaded to catch someone who has a warrant outstanding for a low-level offense," Barfield said. "Is it a tool for law enforcement? Yes, but it should be reserved for significant criminal activity — violent felonies."

A useful tool

Walt Zalisko, a retired police chief and owner of Fort Myers-based Global Investigative Group, says he is in favor of the readers. As a police best-practices expert, Zalisko said he believes that it's no different from a police officer manually running someone's license plate.

"Nobody has an expectation of privacy when you're in public," Zalisko said. "There's no difference if the cop is pulling you over for that. It just makes the cop's job a lot easier."

Zalisko said that when he was an officer during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, police were given "hot sheets" listing stolen vehicles and wanted criminals. With license plate readers, the hot sheet system is automated.

It is on the department to investigate and determine whether the person driving the car is who officers are looking for before they make an arrest, Zalisko said. He said he believes that even though the technology has existed for more than 20 years, agencies are buying them now because of increasing affordability.

Tokajer agreed with Zalisko's assessment of the privacy concerns, and assured residents and visitors that no data is being retained by the readers.

"The only thing that's stored is the license plate," Tokajer said. "No personal data is being stored. The license plate belongs to the state, and the cameras don't show who's in the car."

The system has safeguards in place to handle the potential for misuse, Tokajer said. Officers have to run tags manually after the system pings them, and license plate reader data has to be tied to a criminal investigation for an officer to access it.

"If I had a license plate number, I can put that in the system, but it has to be tied to an active investigation," Tokajer said. "I can't just go in and see how many times someone has come out to the beach without putting a case number in there."

Widespread use

The plate readers are not unique to Holmes Beach.

They are becoming more common, too, as police departments look to the ease of use and sense of security the system provides. Tokajer helped Bradenton and Longboat Key acquire their readers, he said, and most local departments have the same system.

Because of the widespread and increasing use, law enforcement agencies sometimes share data captured by the systems. Sometimes, the data is kept and managed by private technology companies.

In the case of Holmes Beach, the system is provided by Vigilant Solutions, a California-based security technology company. Vigilant workers maintain all of the data captured by the plates in their Virginia database.

Barfield said he is concerned that some data may be sold by the companies who operate these data storage systems to outside advertisers, although Vigilant says that the data is owned by the departments who capture it.

On top of that, some databases can store data for years before the information is wiped.

Tokajer also said that the data captured by the system can be used in conjunction with the county and the tourist development board to determine how many people are coming into the city. This can help these entities determine whether the department needs more funding to deal with increased tourism.

It's also useful for solving crimes, he pointed out.

Darryl V. Hanna Jr., suspected in a Longboat Key double murder, was arrested using readers on Longboat Key that also were purchased from Vigilant.

"They are a great investigative tool for a community of our size," Tokajer said. "When you only have two exits, it gives you the opportunity to go back in time to solve a case."

©2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.