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ACLU of NC Releases Findings in License Plate Reader Investigation

10:54 AM, Jul 18, 2013   |    comments
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High Point - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina released its findings of a year-long investigation into automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), used by 11 law enforcement agencies in the state-including the High Point Police Department.

The ACLU of NC claims the ALPRs are an invasion of privacy and for the past year has been requesting and processing public records of ALPR use by law enforcement agencies throughout North Carolina. The 11 law enforcement agencies that use ALPRS are Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, Durham County Tax Administrator, Fayetteville Police Department, Greenville Police Department, Jacksonville Police Department, Raleigh Police Department, Washington Police Department, Wilmington Police Department, Wilson County Sheriff's Office and Wrightsville Beach Police Department and High Point Police Department. The Greensboro Police Department does not have an automatic license plate reader.

ACLU of NC claims records obtained by High Point PD show the department has made 70,289 license plate reads between August 2011 and June 2012. Of those reads, only .08 percent of reads have resulted in "hits," or finds related to criminal investigations. High Point Police Chief Marty Sumner told News 2 Thursday afternoon that the .08 percentage of hits is accurate and is not low, given how often the cars with the readers are on the roadways.

The High Point Police Department told WFMY News 2 Thursday it has only two officers trained to use its ALPRs.  They are installed in only two cars, each assigned to one particular officer.  Those two officers were not at the station on Thursday and thus could not talk with News 2.  Capt. Travis Stroud did reiterate license plates are public property, and officers need no probable cause or reasonable suspicion of a driver or car in order to scan the plate and store the GPS data in their system.

High Point PD said it uses the scanners to take pictures of license plates and store the GPS data on every vehicle it scans.  Police said the scanners have been helpful in terms of locating stolen vehicles and in facilitating routine license check points.

High Point Police Chief Marty Sumner told News 2 Thursday explained the process is nto nearly as evasive as some people might fear.  He said the machine takes a photo of the license plate, and then the photo recognition software reads the number.  It does not scan and record a person's name, and the police would have to take a tag out of the data base and have it scanned through the DMV, if it wished to determine the identify of a tag's owner.  Sumner said all license plate readers are standard and are operated in this way.

Sumner said the ACLU's biggest opposition to the readers stems from some law enforcement agencies' storing of the data indefinitely.  Sumner said the High Point PD carefully thought out a general ruler for the readers before purchasing two (for $25 each) three years ago.  He said the department has very specific rules on what the data can be used for and who can audit it.  It can be kept for a maximum of two years.  "All we do is check on the wanted list or not," Sumner said.

"The reason we store the data is because you may have your car stolen, and you may not know it for a few hours or for a few days.  When we come out and make a report on your (stolen) car, we put it on a lookout list and we scan the data base, and the reader might have scanned the car a few days ago," Sumner said.

The ALCU of NC argues police departments do not use discretion when targeting drivers and is backing a piece of legislation-Senate Bill 623-which would place safeguards on ALPR use by requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using or sharing ALPR data and by placing time limits on how long the data can be stored. The bill still would allow law enforcement to use ALPR data to check license plates against databases to make sure a vehicle has not been stolen or involved in a crime.

A High Point police officer told News 2 the prospect of having to obtain warrants before scanning a license place is impractical and unfeasible.

Sumner added, "It's completely unnecessary.  Would you tell soembody they can't take a photo?"

Sumner said the department has no plans to purchase another reader.


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