License plate scanners: Big help for cops or Big Brother?
Despite concerns expressed by a civil liberties group, area police departments say the use of license plate scanners is a more effective way of doing standard police work that saves hundreds of man hours.
The scanner "has resulted in quite a few arrests for different motor vehicle violations. We picked up some stolen cars and we had two robbery arrests as a direct result of the plate reader in kind of a convoluted fashion," said Deputy Fairfield Police Chief Christopher Lyddy.
He said that recently there was a robbery in Fairfield in which the suspect managed to get away in a car. Witnesses got a license plate number off the fleeing vehicle but the plate turned out to not actually belong on the car, which traditionally is a dead end in an investigation, he said.
However, Lyddy said, the officer investigating the crime had access to the national database of plate scans. When he ran that particular plate, he saw on several occasions the vehicle had been parked in a particular neighborhood in Bridgeport. So he drove to that neighborhood, saw the getaway car passing by and was able to stop it.
Not only did the officer make an arrest in the robbery case but he found evidence in the car of another robbery, Lyddy said.
Bridgeport Deputy Police Chief James Baraja said, "I can tell you in our initial deployments every time it (the scanner) went out on an eight-hour shift, we'd get at least one stolen car recovered. We like to run them for any special details, especially if we had intelligence that there might be gang problems or if there was going to be a site where there was an anticipated act of violence or anything where we thought there was a potential to be trouble."
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch said the police department is also using the technology to see if vehicles with out-of-state plates are regularly spotted in neighborhoods. City officials believe that plenty of people who live here register their vehicle out of town, thereby avoiding taxes. Thus, the scanners might help in identifying these people, who then will be contacted to see if they should register their vehicles in Bridgeport.
Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union questioned how the information from license plate scans was being used and stored by Connecticut police departments. The ACLU was able to obtain information gleaned by police department plate scanners through a Freedom of Information request to a central database. Included in the information obtained by the ACLU was details from the Fairfield Police Department's scanners.
However, the ACLU later clarified that the information it obtained did not include the names and addresses of car owners, but rather the time a particular plate was scanned and where that scan took place. Other information on a car's registration cannot be disclosed to the public under a federal driver privacy act.
Lyddy said he doesn't believe the information obtained by the scanners should be releasable under an FOI request, but conceded that it is out of their hands because the company purchased its scanners from vendors who use the central database. "It's not something we have control of," he said.
But Baraja said all the information his department gets from the scanners is kept in-house and is not available to the public.
The scanners -- each department has two -- are mounted to a particular police car with a camera connected to a laptop computer. As the car is engaged in normal, routine patrol, it scans license plates in parked cars or cars traveling in proximity to the patrol car. The computer then compares those license plates scanned against a database of stolen plates.
"They check the plates they read against a master list of stolen cars, cars with suspended registrations, and they will give you a warning if the plate that is scanned by the cameras is on the hot list," Baraja said. "So it could be anything from stolen cars to a scofflaw to a person who is identified as a known gang member. It depends on how you configure it, how you set it up."
Both Lyddy and Baraja said the scanners use technology to do what police officers have been doing since cars were on the road, but in a much faster and more efficient way.
"What you used to do is when you would walk in to your lineup there would be a whole bunch of hot sheets at the front of the room and the guys who were in motor vehicles would grab the hot sheet and tape it on the dash of their car or in the visor and, as they are driving around, they would be looking for, say, a Chevy Malibu or a red Toyota Corolla that was just reported stolen," said Baraja. "It's automation that furthers the law enforcement goal and makes it effortless. You don't have to look at a list with bad handwriting or smudged ink."