Aug 30, 2007 @ 10:50 PM
By ROCCO LaDUCA
Utica (NY) Observer-Dispatch
First came the radar gun for police road patrols.
Then came the ability to transmit the driver’s background information by a vehicle-mounted computer.
Now, the newest tool allows officers to scan a motorist’s license plate to check for suspended or revoked registrations, arrest warrants and stolen cars.
Known as the Mobile Plate Hunter 900, the device already is being used by area agencies, including Utica, New Hartford sheriff’s deputies and the state police.
The recognition device, which reads a vehicle’s license plate via a scanning camera, has proven to be an efficient and nonintrusive tool that lets police monitor hundreds of vehicles everyday while officers continue to go about their normal patrol duties, officials agree.
It not only is beneficial for daily routine patrols, but also was used in a local murder case last November.
When Scott Herman had just brutally murdered his 82-year-old grandmother in Rome, state police pondered whether the known reclusive suspect may attempt to flee the area in a stolen car.
“When people are desperate, they do desperate things, and stealing a car is definitely a desperate thing,” state police Capt. Frank Coots said.
While the device did not lead police to Herman, Coots said such an example highlights the potential this technology offers local law enforcement agencies.
“This is another example of technology as a work-force multiplier in law enforcement by allowing our officers to be much more efficient in getting bad people and bad drivers off the road,” New Hartford police Chief Raymond Philo said.
But such efficiency comes at the expense of every motorist’s civil right to avoid police surveillance unless a law has been violated, officials with the New York Civil Liberties Union argue.
“Police really should be in the business of investigating crimes, not tracking law-abiding citizens,” said Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“When we are driving and we are always having our licenses plates examined, then everybody on the road is being treated as a suspect,” she said.
How it works
Police officials acknowledge the license plate recognition device – like each new technology in law enforcement – comes with its own potential for legal issues, such as Gewanter’s concern.
But the way a mobile license plate reader, also called an LPR, is used takes every precaution to avoid violating someone’s rights, officials said.
As New Hartford police Officer Matt Sica drove up Oneida Street last week, the two LPR cameras mounted atop his patrol vehicle simultaneously scanned roughly 150 passing license plates in about 15 minutes. While Sica paid attention to his surroundings, the LPR would beep every time it photographed a passing car’s license plate.
The LPR then interpreted the letters and numbers of the license plate while comparing it to a “hot list” database compiled by the state Department of Motor Vehicles and state Division of Criminal Justice Services. If the LPR detected a revoked license or stolen vehicle, for example, the device would sound a specific alert.
It would then be up to that officer to determine if the LPR accurately detected a possible violation and whether further investigation or an arrest was necessary, officials explained. In some cases, the LPR would misread the license plate, and in other cases it may not be possible to locate the matching vehicle amidst heavy traffic, they said.
“The human factor is always going to be an important component of law enforcement,” New Hartford police Lt. Timothy O’Neill said.
An LPR can scan roughly 1,000 license plates an hour, officials said, and that helps detect plenty of issues that officers may not particularly be aware of, officials said.
While the LPR can be used to target vehicles linked to specific individuals, such as suspected terrorists or kidnappers identified during Amber Alerts, the device’s overall use has much broader impact, officials said.
Particularly when it comes to people driving either with a suspended or revoked license or without insurance, officials said.
“You don’t know the aggravation you have to go through until your vehicle is hit by an uninsured driver,” Philo said. “We’ve got to get those people off the road.”
According to Utica police, their LPR scanned about 400 license plates and detected 19 suspended or revoked registrations between January and March. A stolen vehicle and a stolen license plate were recovered, and eight people wanted on arrest warrants were located, police said.
The Oneida County Sheriff’s Office has been just as successful using the device, which each agency has received through a grant issued by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
More than 100,000 plates were scanned by the sheriff patrol’s LPR during the first six months of this year, resulting in 143 suspended or revoked registrations being located and 40 arrests, including four people wanted on warrants and two drunken driving suspects, Undersheriff M. Peter Paravati said.
“It would take our work force days and days to read 1,200 to 1,300 license plates if that’s all they did, so it’s like having the value of one to two more deputies per day,” Paravati said. “And when you get a hit, it could potentially lead you beyond vehicle and traffic violations to more serious crimes quickly and efficiently.”
In New Hartford, as well, police have charged people with drunken driving and marijuana possession this summer after the department’s LPR detected them driving without insurance.
The shadow of ‘Big Brother’
Nevertheless, civil liberties experts still believe license plate recognition technology is taking “proactive policing” too far.
Gewanter of the New York Civil Liberties Union recently voiced two particular points of concern:
— Every photographed image is kept in a database for possible reference at a later date, perhaps to determine if a particular vehicle has previously passed through an area.
“Just because we have greater technology and more capacity doesn’t mean the police need to use it to create databases of everybody driving on the road,” Gewanter said.
Putting the concern of uninsured drivers in perspective, she added, “Just because there’s a problem is not a justification for Big Brother to be watching everybody’s car on every road at all times.”
—There’s no guarantee the person driving the vehicle is responsible for whatever wrongdoing that may be detected by the LPR.
“Spotting a license plate is not equivalent to spotting a criminal,” she said.
Police officials, however, agree that LPRs are merely a more technologically-advanced version of an old-fashion road block, only less intrusive.
They also note the device only detects vehicles that are already presumed to be operating under some legal violation.
“This is as little evasive as possible,” state police Capt. Coots said. “We’re not stopping anyone, we’re not detaining anyone. We’re only doing what is easily observable anyway.”
Then Coots added: “A lot of people forget that operating a motor vehicle in New York state is a privilege, as opposed to a right. We respect people’s privacy, but we also have an obligation to detect and deter crimes, and this is just another tool to do that.”