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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Portland Police Collect Thousands Of License Plate Numbers

The "Automatic License Plate Reader" used by the Portland police department can collect thousands of plates numbers in a day. (Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB)

The “Automatic License Plate Reader” used by the Portland police department can collect thousands of plates numbers in a day. (Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB)

In Portland, Oregon, a new crime-fighting technology is coming under scrutiny. Cameras on police cars are collecting and storing up to 128,000 license plate numbers per day.

The system is already solving dozens of crimes. For example, if authorities are investigating a murder and want to check on the whereabouts of a suspect’s car, they can tap into a computer and perhaps find out where it was on a particular day.

But some civil liberties advocates have reservations about the new surveillance system. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.





The Dallas Police Department is one of the latest law enforcement agencies to install high-tech license plate readers. They'll be using 28 of them, some of which are installed in patrol cars. Now the cameras are both highly useful and highly controversial. Take, for example, in Portland, Oregon, where cameras on police cars there have started collecting and storing information from vehicle license plates, up to 128,000 plates per day.

Now here's how it can work: If authorities are investigating a murder and want to check on the whereabouts of a suspect's car, they query the license plate database and could possibly find out where that car was on a particular day. Police say the system is already solving dozens of crimes, but civil liberties advocates question the need to sweep plate information from hundreds of thousands of plates, most of which belong to innocent residents.

From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Kristian Foden-Vencil, reports.

KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL, BYLINE: Officer Garrett Dow climbs into his blue and white squad car outside central precinct in downtown. He switches on his automatic license plate reader and starts driving. Four cameras mounted on the roof take pictures of all the cars he passes, whether parked or driving. They then feed license plate numbers into a computer. A dash-mounted screen pings each time the computer logs a plate number.

Most of the time, the system just runs in the background, filling up a hard drive. But if the system sees a number plate that's been flagged because the car's been stolen or it belongs to a wanted felon, Officer Dow is alerted. There's an alarm and a picture of the car flashes on to the top of his dashboard screen. He says the value of the system was evident to him as soon as he got it.

GARRETT DOW: We turned the system on, and within five minutes, I was able to locate a vehicle involved in an assault. The chances of finding the vehicle were pretty slim. But once you put it in the license plate reader system, it's finding it for you. It's doing - it's making the officer more efficient, better at his job, more likely to find a car that is wanted.

FODEN-VENCIL: Inside Central Precinct, Lieutenant John Scruggs oversees the system for Portland Police. He says the 16 police cars mounted with automatic license plate readers helped recover more than $2 million worth of stolen cars last year, and solved crimes, ranging from hit and run to fraud.

LIEUTENANT JOHN SCRUGGS: We had, you know, one particular case where we had an identity theft suspect, 100 counts of identity theft. We couldn't locate him because he's - he was basically living out of different people's houses. He's living on the street in his car. And the detective had no ability to follow up. But they put the plate in our system and located the vehicle, literally, within like three days of putting it in there.

FODEN-VENCIL: But there are concerns that the police could use this powerful technology to find out, for example, whether a local politician is having an affair, or to learn the identities of people getting together for a political rally, a possible infringement of the right to assembly. David Fidanque, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, doesn't mind the system being used to catch criminals. But, he says, the government shouldn't be collecting massive amounts of information on innocent people.

DAVID FIDANQUE: What the ACLU wants to do is not to prohibit the police from using this kind of technology, but put strict limits on how long the data can be retained if there isn't a hit on the license plate.

FODEN-VENCIL: Fidanque says the ACLU is drawing up legislation that would require police to wipe the record of any number plate logged after 24 hours unless it popped up because of a criminal issue.

FIDANQUE: The underpinning of our Constitution is that we have the right to be left alone by government unless the government has some specific evidence that we've done something wrong. And then the government can search our person, our property if the government has probable cause and they have approval from a judge. So we're saying, let's just stick by those rules. Those rules are not an obstacle to good law enforcement. They're a road map to good law enforcement.

FODEN-VENCIL: Lieutenant John Scruggs is well aware of the ACLU's objections. But he says after talking to law enforcement agencies across the country, he's set Portland's system to clear number plates after four years.

SCRUGGS: Realistically, the statute of limitations runs out on a lot of major felonies at seven years. And, you know, after four years, if we haven't, you know, solved a crime, the likelihood is pretty low. And in talking with an agency down in California, they discussed a case where they had a plate read that was valuable four years after the crime, so I settled on four years.

FODEN-VENCIL: And, Scruggs says, Portland's police department changed its policy after talking to the ACLU about collecting plates at public gatherings.

SCRUGGS: We don't allow our officers to go to political rallies, go to churches, those kinds of places unless they're on a call or there's some other need.

FODEN-VENCIL: Earlier this year, the Oregon's ACLU successfully backed an effort prohibiting law enforcement from using aerial drones for surveillance without a court order except in emergency situations. The ACLU plans to introduce a bill in Oregon's February legislative session to require police to dump license plate numbers sooner. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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