hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Who’s got your number?

License-plate scanners help police but raise privacy concerns



Contributing writer

One day in late September, Bennington police were given information about a possible drug deal set to occur within the town limits.

The police began to search the area for a vehicle of one of the suspects. Officers couldn’t find a vehicle that matched the description they’d been given, but their automated license-plate reader soon found the suspect’s license plate on a different vehicle.

Bennington police Lt. Lloyd Dean said officers confirmed the information and then found probable cause to pull the vehicle over and search it for drugs.

Although no drugs were found, Dean said the case was an example of how license-plate readers, which automatically scan the plates of passing or parked vehicles and send that information to a central database, are providing police with a new high-tech ally in their efforts to track down lawbreakers.

“We used it today with success,” Dean said, referring to a plate reader installed on one of Bennington’s patrol cars. The town police force actually has two automated plate readers, purchased with federal highway safety funds, although one of the readers wasn’t working properly as of late September.

Dean said the readers, combined with traditional detective work, can help to identify criminal suspects who otherwise might be missed. He also described how the plate readers are able to generate a “hot list” of license plates belonging to drivers who should be pulled over for issues ranging from expired registration to outstanding warrants.

“They are a valuable tool for us,” he said.

But civil libertarians and privacy advocates say they’re concerned that the new plate readers, particularly as their use becomes more widespread, may be too powerful a tool for tracking the movements and whereabouts of people who’ve committed no crime. Some also are warning of what they say are lax or nonexistent rules about how the data gathered by the readers is stored and used.

Widely varying policies

If you’ve driven anywhere in the past year or so, chances are your license plate has been recorded by state or local police using an electronic plate reader. The readers are designed to record license-plate numbers much more quickly than any police officer ever could with pen and paper. The information is then compiled in a database for officers to search.

In the event of an unsolved crime, Dean explained, officers can use the data to gather a list of potential suspects based on vehicles recorded near a crime scene at about the time the crime occurred.

But where that information ends up, how long it’s stored and who has access to it depends on exactly where you were driving when your license plate was recorded. That worries privacy watchdogs.

In July, some 39 affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union filed freedom-of-information requests to state and local law enforcement agencies in an effort to find out the basic facts about license-plate surveillance programs. The groups want to know where the information collected by the electronic readers is stored and who has access to it.

Late last month, the ACLU of Massachusetts went to court to challenge federal law enforcement agencies it said had failed to release information about the plate readers as required by the federal Freedom of Information Act.

What the ACLU has learned so far has heightened concerns, said Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project.

“We’ve found wildly different responses already,” Crockford said.

There is no uniformity in the policies among state and local police agencies about who keeps or has access to the information from plate readers or how long the information is kept, she said.

Most municipal police agencies in Vermont and Massachusetts are required to feed the plate-reader information into each state’s central database. New York, on the other hand, has no centralized system.

And while Vermont state police store plate-reader records for four years, New Hampshire practically has banned the readers, and Maine police are only allowed to retain the information for a few days.

Crockford and other privacy watchdogs worry that the data being collected could be mined by law enforcement, circumventing Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure without probable cause or a warrant. They also worry that the information could fall into private hands and be used against citizens in noncriminal matters, such as in divorce proceedings.

If states and the federal government don’t set limits on such monitoring programs, the data generated can become like a 24/7 surveillance program targeting law-abiding citizens, Crockford argued.

“Your location reveals an incredible amount about who you are,” she said.

The spillover of plate-reader data into noncriminal matters is already occurring in a handful of cases. The Minneapolis Star Tribune, for example, reported in August that a Minnesota car dealer used plate-reader data to repossess a car; the dealer did so after learning that under Minnesota law, all license plate data is considered a matter of public record.

Homeland-security funding

Plate-reader technology was first invented in the United Kingdom in 1976 and has been widely used by police there for some time, said David Roberts, a law enforcement information management specialist with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

But in the United States, use of the technology only began to take off after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Crockford argued that’s not a coincidence. Since the 9/11 attacks, federal grants have focused on improving law enforcement surveillance capacity within U.S. borders, she said. Grant money from the U.S. homeland security and transportation departments has in effect subsidized the license-reader market and driven the price per unit down by more than $10,000 – from about $20,000 a decade ago, she said.

Interest in the readers is growing rapidly within the law enforcement community. At professional conferences, panel discussions about the technology usually are packed, Roberts said.

Police agencies typically acquire their first plate readers to help with traffic enforcement, he said.

“As they realize the value of it, they want it for other purposes as well,” Roberts said.

The ACLU has been taken by surprise with the proliferation of the readers, said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. When Gilbert started his effort to find out about how the technology is being used in Vermont, he said he imagined there would be four or five police agencies in the state, at most, using the technology.

“We were pretty amazed at what we found,” Gilbert said. “It was more like two dozen departments in Vermont.”

In New York, city police in Saratoga Springs were among the first to start using the technology. Saratoga Springs police Capt. Michael Chowske said he believes the department purchased its first license-plate reader nearly a decade ago.

The readers have been a boon to law enforcement and are especially effective during sobriety checkpoints, Chowske said. It’s amazing how many expired registrations and suspended licenses one can find in a traffic lineup, he said.

“This is just like cleaning up,” Chowske said. “This gives you one more avenue to find those people.”

A recent University of Colorado study seems to back up the notion that police agencies with plate readers are able to make more arrests. The study, published in the March issue of Criminal Justice Review, found that Arizona law enforcement agencies using plate readers had eight times the arrest rate for stolen vehicles when compared with those checking plates manually.

Balancing crime fighting, privacy

Vermont State Police Lt. Michael Macarilla, who oversees his force’s license-reader program, said privacy concerns can be addressed with proper oversight of stored plate records. His agency stores records generated by license-plate readers for four years, the same length of time it keeps videos made by police-cruiser dashboard recorders, he said.

But he added that access to that data, which is stored in a central database in Williston, is limited to law enforcement personnel who can prove to his agency that they have a case that needs it. Vermont has even been reluctant at times to share that data with law enforcement agencies in New York, where the safeguards to data access are less strict, Macarilla said.

Plate readers have been instrumental in solving criminal cases in Vermont, he said, and they simply automate what any officer could do standing by the side of the road.

“Your vehicle is in plain view,” Macarilla said. “There’s no expectation of privacy on the road.”

But when it comes to digital surveillance on roads and highways, legal opinions are varied. Although it’s expected that law enforcement agencies must confirm an alert from a license-plate reader with a dispatcher before pulling a vehicle over, a state Supreme Court justice in New York ruled in 2010 that the protocol only carries the weight of a suggested guideline, according to a state Division of Criminal Justice Services memo that was circulated to state law enforcement personnel last year.

In the court case that triggered that memo, the judge ruled that even though police officers had failed to verify plate-reader information during a traffic stop, the gun they found in a suspect’s car during the stop was still admissible as evidence in court.

In a closely watched federal case, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that law enforcement officials must have a valid warrant before attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s car. The high court’s ruling rejected the government’s argument that long-term surveillance using a GPS device is no different from traditional, low-tech surveillance methods.

Gilbert and other privacy watchdogs reject the notion that police will keep record access restricted. They liken it to the fox guarding the henhouse.

Vermont’s license-reader records are kept at a State Police facility known as the Vermont Fusion Center in Williston. The facility, set up in 2005, is intended to foster sharing of information between state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI office in Albany, N.Y., and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which also has space in the Williston facility.

Setting limits

The decision on whether to share license-plate reader data gathered in Vermont is ultimately up to State Police officials at the Fusion Center.

Gilbert pointed out that the same law enforcement officials who’ve pledged to set a high bar for sharing plate-reader records also swore in the past that they would not try to get access to a state-created prescription drug database.

Earlier this year, however, the Legislature beat back a push by law enforcement to get access to the prescription database. Law enforcement officials had argued that having an officer review that database is comparable to the same officer walking into a pharmacy to ask for prescription records, which is allowed under Vermont law. Civil libertarians countered that the database was fundamentally different from individual pharmacy records because it contains so much more information.

“Mission creep is inevitable,” Gilbert said.

The only way to avoid an erosion of privacy safeguards is to codify in law the need for more oversight and transparency in the process, privacy watchdogs contend.

Some communities have a stand against sharing plate-reader information. Local officials in Norwich, Vt., and Brookline, Mass., for example, both voted not to accept grant funds for license plate readers that would have tied reader records to statewide databases.

For her part, Crockford said she believes the plate readers are a valuable tool for police. But she said there isn’t enough legislative oversight over how the records generated by the readers are used and stored. The goal of the ACLU is to raise questions that should be answered in the Legislature, and the organization’s campaign to find out more about the readers is designed to spark that discussion, she said.

“You can’t convince lawmakers that there’s a problem unless you’ve got evidence to back it up,” Crockford said.


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