license plate readers have only caught on in the U.S. in the past few years. Expense has been one barrier; each unit costs at least $17,000. President Barack Obama’s Recovery Act, though, is helping law enforcement purchase the equipment. In Texas, 14 agencies – from the tiny Penitas Police Department in the Rio Grande Valley to the Precinct 7 Constable in Harris County – have used over $1.2 million in stimulus funds to buy automated license plate readers, according to figures maintained by the governor’s office.Here's my point of disconnect, in 2008 in between sessions, the DEA asked permission to put license plate readers on Texas' roads, and TXDOT declined saying it wasn't legal to use them criminal law enforcement. As I described TXDOT testimony to the Legislature at the time, under Texas law any "photographic traffic enforcement system must a) be implemented by a local authority, b) requires a traffic engineering study and evaluation of alternatives, and c) must be aimed at reducing red light violations."
Innovators in law enforcement – egged on by the technology’s vendors – are putting their new toys to creative use. There’s little doubt that the license plate readers could help law enforcement with critical duties. But what can help nab a fugitive or recover a stolen vehicle can also be used to conduct mass surveillance or target political dissidents.
Some law enforcement agencies, like Highland Village, are also storing the data they collect for years, creating vast warehouses of information, including the exact time and location of vehicles scanned, that can be mapped, searched and data-mined.
In the case of the road-rage suspect, O’Bara’s officers punched the license plate into their database and, seconds later, were amazed by the results.
“It basically gives us a map and it shows every place in our city that we had picked up on this license plate, which was astronomical,” said O’Bara. Unknowingly to both the driver and the cops, the license plate scanners had detected and recorded the precise location, time and date of the driver’s car at least two dozen times in the previous three to four weeks.
Many of the hits were clustered in a shopping center, where, as the cops discovered, the man worked. In the end, no arrests were made and the cops probably could have found the road-rager using more traditional methods. But for O’Bara, the experience underscored his belief that the technology could revolutionize policing in much the same way that DNA, fingerprinting, and breathalyzers have.
“Simply limiting the ability of this machine to stolen cars is insane,” O’Bara said. “I looked at it and I saw a hundred different opportunities.”
O’Bara says he’s leading his own grassroots initiative in the Metroplex to interest law enforcement in stitching together a network of scanners.
DEA license plate readers failed all three tests, but using license plate readers as described above - especially using them to create a regional network - surely fails the last two. Wilder notes that:
the Texas Legislature nearly passed a provision in 2009 that would have allowed the DEA and other local and federal agencies to track all vehicles on Texas highways using license plate readers and use the information to prosecute any crime except fine-only misdemeanors. The measure was slipped into an enormous transportation bill at the last second, seemingly a stealth move to avoid debate. Although the measure died along with the bill, it’s likely to come back next legislative session.So TXDOT ruled their use illegal. The Legislature "nearly passed" language approving it in 2009, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. I simply don't understand under what authority are these local agencies using license plate detectors? Will criminal defense lawyers soon be challenging their use under the identical reasoning offered by TXDOT? I certainly hope so.
However, given the unpopularity of red-light cameras in Texas, proponents of license plate readers – if anything, a more insidious device – may actually face an uphill battle. That is, if there’s a chance to debate the issue.
This is insidious, truly Big Brother technology. Collecting that much data about the public for law enforcement purposes when there's no reason to suspect them of a crime creates an atmosphere fraught with opportunities for abuse.
And btw, thank for nothing to the Obama Administration for the USDOJ financing this invasive technology when the feds had already been told its use violated Texas state law.