License Plate Readers Help Police But Raise Privacy Concerns

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There’s nothing new about police officers keeping a sharp eye out for vehicle license plates. But more and more of that looking is being done by cameras hooked up to computers in their cruisers.

Police say the devices are just speeding up what they would be doing anyway. Some have privacy concerns about the new technology, but others, including the Hartford Police Department, say the benefits of  the devices outweigh those worries.

The Upper Valley town of Hartford was one of the first communities to adopt the technology, about three years ago. As a light rain falls, Lieutenant Brad Vail points out two fist-sized black lenses mounted on the hood of a squad car parked outside the police department.

"They’re called antennas," Vail explains, "but they are actually cameras. They’re infa-red, so they do work at night."

Night vision is not the only improvement over human surveillance. Each plate number, with the time and location of each sighting, goes into the officer’s computer and also into a data bank at the Department of Public Safety. If the license plate number matches one on a so-called hot list of criminal suspects distributed by state or local authorities, the officer is likely to determine the owner or driver of the vehicle. Vail says that makes it a useful tool.

"It could be something simple as, ‘We have paper work to serve on this person.’ Or it could be used in investigations, you know, ‘This person is suspected of committing burglaries.’ And we can feed that into the system and we can keep track of that plate that way."

Police investigators, Vail claims, must have good reasons for mining the data bank kept by the state. He says the information is closely guarded and purged after four years.  But it’s not clear if others-say, an estranged spouse, or a reporter– could file a freedom of information request about motorists who may be totally innocent of wrongdoing. That’s what worries Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton.

"What I could see was a privacy issue on one side and on the other side was what was probably a small improvement to our law enforcement capability," Fulton says.

So when he found out about a Homeland Security grant application by the Norwich police chief for one of the plate readers, he opened the discussion to the community. In time, he argued successfully against getting the $24,000 reader.

He compares the deploying the readers to fishing with a net, instead of a hook.

"You not only catch the tune you want but you end up catching a lot of fish you don’t want, and that was a concern to me."

State Police Lieutenant Mike Macarilla oversees the state’s license plate program, and has a different view. 

"Yes," he says, " it’s like fishing, but it’s like telling the officer, ‘This is the fish that you want."

Macarilla says officers generally do not pursue or investigate anyone snared by the readers unless the suspect is already on a hot list. And he notes that license plates are posted, by law, in public. So he believes the expectation of privacy should be relatively low.  

His boss, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, agrees. But he notes that courts are still trying to draw that line, between what is private, and what is not, in a high-tech age. Flynn says not every state cruiser has a plate reader, and that there is-quote-"a limited number" in towns and cities. But that number is on the rise.

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