Squad car technology tracks vehicles, searches database

ECM Capitol Reporter
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To law enforcement, automatic license plate readers are an effective tool for nabbing suspects, returning stolen cars and investigating murders.

Others view the technology, capable of capturing thousands of license plates per minute, as a potential electronic stalker.

“There are no restrictions whatsoever,” American Civil Liberties Union Minnesota attorney Teresa Nelson said of law enforcement in Minnesota amassing license plate data. “That really concerns us.”

Automatic license plate readers match license plate numbers against downloaded police “hot lists,” checking for stolen vehicles, missing persons, outstanding warrants and other items. The State Patrol uses a Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Driver and Vehicle Services Division, National Crime Information Center and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension “hot list” database, according to documents obtained by the ACLU.

Intimate activities of the innocent, as well as criminals, can be tracked, critics warn.

The use of automatic license plate readers isn’t limited to big cities. They’re in the suburbs, too.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Department uses two readers; the Bloomington Police Department has five squads equipped. Other suburban police departments, including the Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul police departments in Dakota County, use license plate readers, as well. The Minnesota State Patrol also has a squad equipped with a reader.

Minnesota Sheriffs Association Executive Director Jim Franklin said of law enforcement entities in the state, probably fewer than 20 departments are using the technology. But Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman suggested that could grow.

“I would say there are probably some agencies holding off, waiting to purchase the technology until they have a better understanding of what they actually can do with it,” Dohman said.

The number of license plates being read is huge.

According to Minnesota State Patrol records obtained by the ACLU, between January and November 2011, the patrol registered 752,293 plate reads. About 329 citations and 63 arrests were made.

Some law enforcement officials, including Dohman, argue license plate readers are effective.

The Bloomington Police Department used its readers to check vehicles in a neighborhood following a murder, said Bloomington Police Department Deputy Chief Vic Poyer, who said he thinks readers are effective as law enforcement tools.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom gave a defense of the use of license plate readers.

“It is not an infringement of privacy,” Backstrom said, saying anyone can take pictures of license plates in public. Police for years have been jotting down plate numbers and entering them into computers, he said.

“You’ve got nothing to worry about unless you’re breaking the law,” Backstrom said.

As the result of a request to state officials by the city of Minneapolis, license plate numbers along with date, time and location data on vehicles, plus pictures of license plates, vehicles and areas surrounding the vehicles, as captured by readers, have been classified as private data.

The temporary classification expires Aug. 1, 2015, or until legislative action.

Beyond whether reader data should be public or private is the question of how long it should be kept.

Critics, such as the ACLU, assert the numbers of criminals arrested through the use of license plate readers pales in comparison to the massive amount of data being collected.

Retention policies among departments vary. The State Patrol, in most cases, deletes license plate data within 48 hours. Bloomington keeps data for 90 days.

“I think 90 days is a good balance,” Poyer said.

The Democratic-led House last session passed legislation that does not permit retention of license plate data by law enforcement not linked to criminal activity. But the Democratic-led Senate did not act on license plate reader legislation.

House Civil Law Committee Chairman John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, a prosecutor for the city of St. Paul, said law enforcement officials themselves are uncomfortable with amassing data on innocent people.

“This is really stepping outside the umbrella of constitutional understanding,” Lesch said.

Keeping license plate reader data for lengthy periods can prove useful in solving crimes, Lesch said. So would planting microchips in everyone, he added, sarcastically.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, expects data retention will be debated in the Senate next session.

Don Gemberling, a data privacy expert with the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, views license plate readers as a piece of a larger puzzle.

“The more sophisticated surveillance technology becomes, the more questions we have,” he said.

Gemberling doesn’t believe automatic license plate readers are the same as cops walking their beat. It’s automatic, after all, and there’s no judgment involved, he said.