Friday, July 16, 2010

Obama Recovery Act money financing license plate readers Texas told feds were illegal here

The reported use of license plate readers for law enforcement in Texas seems strange and premature to me and I don't quite understand why it's considered legal. Reports Forrest Wilder at the Texas Observer:
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.

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.
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."

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.

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

This really does sound more like Carona was forced off the committee, but the PR folks are trying to put a positive spin on it for the voters.

Anonymous said...

Please forgive my ignorance, but how exactly is it a bad thing to be able to possibly locate someone’s whereabouts?
When I see informational signs on the freeway that occasionally give information about a kidnapping, or missing person and to keep a lookout for a car or lic. Plate, it would seem damn useful for these things to be in use.
And, if the police are looking for or simply investigating a potential suspect exactly where is the harm?
The cost factor doesn’t hold any real significance when compared to man hours and the possibility of actually catching a crook timely.
I’m not for or against, (yet), please fill me in on the downside.

Anonymous said...

The downside is the great potential for abuse. In the example of the road rage suspect cited in the post, the PD was surprised to see how many times their plate reader had scanned this guy's plates prior to the incident. The potential for an ethical failure (like tracking a political opponents movements or harassing people that a cop has a grudge against) is great and real. Not that all cops would do this, but the mere possibility that this could happen is frightening to civil liberties. Plus, the statute currently doesn't allow for this type of device.

Anonymous said...

What TxDOT would not do was put Stationary LPR technology on Texas Highways. It did not say it was illegal for police cruiser mounted, or unmarked car mounted cameras to operate on Texas Highways.

Anonymous said...

Who cares about privacy or the right to be left alone? Why not just tag every citizen with RFID chips like pets or merchandise and be done with it?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:24, do you find that distinction in court rulings or is it just something you were told?

I'm asking because I don't know: What distinction is there - legal, practical, or otherwise - between LPRs planted along the highway or in a car sitting along the highway? What makes it okay in the latter instance and not the former?

Anonymous said...

I think I recall reading a story more than a year ago where the Tyler city Marshall's are already using this technology. They just drive around and when the cameras spot a license plat matching someone with a warrant it alerts them.

It is kind of scary that they can collect that amount of information. I can see these being used for all sorts of nefarious purposes.

Anonymous said...

Tyler currently operated like a police state with the highest levels of incareration in the world. Also Police write twice the number of traffic tickets as any other city in Texas, (and probably the world.)

In reply to the second post: When has ANY LEO organization failed to misuse the powers granted to it? Happens every time just like clockwork.

Anonymous said...

TxDOT was approached to allow LPRs be permanently mounted on overpasses along drug corridors for criminal law enforcement. TxDOT would not permit this since they own the overpasses.
LPRs are not cameras which take photo's like red light cameras used for traffic enforcement.
LPR's cameras read plates, scan against a database of stolen vehicles, stolen plates, and other data stored on a local server such as a vehicle involoved in a kidnapping, sexual assault etc. This is just technology which permits a computer to search for a wanted vehicle faster than an officer keeping his eyes on a list of several thousand vehicles wanted for criminal rather than traffic enforcement cases.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

But when more than 10% of the population has outstanding warrants (mostly for traffic), the Big Brother aspects of using it to check vehicles when there's no probable cause are significant.

Forrest Wilder said...

I'm the author of the story.

TxDOT objected to fixed license plate readers being deployed in their right-of-way. As far as I know, it was simply a legal concern based on a somewhat unrelated state statute.

This is what the bill in the '09 Lege session was trying to overcome. However, there were never any restrictions on LEOs using license plate readers – fixed or mobile – within their own jurisdictions. In fact, as Anonymous at 10:40 points out, Tyler city marshalls were already using ALPRs before the stimulus came along. What the stimulus did was give a big boost (over $1 million at this point) to the technology.

One thing that didn't make it into the story: The UK is apparently tightening their rules about the use of data collected by ALPRs.

Anonymous said...

According to this article in today's Strategic Partners, the Greenville PD already has one:

Greenville may seek grant for new automated license plate reader
Greenville City Council members recently agreed to hold a public hearing to gather input on whether Greenville police should apply for a federal grant to pay for another infrared automated license plate reader for patrol officers.

The city already has one device capable of automatically reading the license plates of vehicles and another license plate reader could multiply the "eyes" of officers by 100 times, said Interim Police Chief Scott Smith. The system gathers images of license plates, checks for alerts and bulletins while the officer is on patrol. It is capable of processing about 24,000 records per day and notifying officers of outstanding warrants, Smith said.

Greenville city officials usually partner with the Hunt County Sheriff's Office in seeking the grant from the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program. A recent test of a new plate reading system by the county resulted in recovering two stolen vehicles and the arrest of a wanted felon, Smith said.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Forrest and 10:24, I hadn't understood that distinction and had been baffled when agencies began using them anyway. Live and learn.

Anonymous said...

I really don't see where these cameras are that intrusive from a personal liberty perspective, Grits. They really aren't that much different from the literally thousands of video cameras out there in the community that we might pass before daily in our routine activities. For those of us that have cell phones, law enforcement--or the cell phone provider--can pretty easily identify where we are and where we've been based on proximity to cell phone towers. In fact, many cell phones have GPS component that allows you to be tracked to the exact spot where you're located. Our individual internet use is subject to being monitored without a lot of effort. It just continues to amuse me how many people worry so much about there being some nefarious plot to spy on us by "big brother." As some wise philosopher once said, "don't get caught doing anything you wouldn't want plastered all over the front page of the paper and you won't have anything to worry about."

Mark #1 said...

Well anon 2:06, what was Thomas Jefferson trying to hide? Or Hamilton, Madison, Adams, et al? If you're not doing anything wrong, no need for that pesky Fourth Amendment, is there? Ah, how wonderful life would be if our protectors were allowed to conduct their "services" on our behalf without the technicalities of the Bill of Rights.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and those pesky little 2nd and 10th Amendments that have been getting so much publicity of late. I sure love the way you liberals selectively pick and choose amendments in the Bill of Rights when you start advocating whatever "flavor of the month" left wing issue you happen to be concerned with.

Anonymous said...

RE: Forrest Wilder @ 12:38 -- It appears that Wilder is saying the red light camera legislation is "somewhat unrelated" because it addresses taking a photograph as opposed to a "scan." But in the digital age, are we really going to hinge our liberties on a semantic argument about whether a photo and a scan are different?

The law that limits the use of red light cameras to red light violations and requires particular studies prior to implementation was a final compromise intended to curb the excesses of both law enforcement and the tax collector (just because you didn't "see" a crime, doesn't mean you can't fine someone for it!). And it should absolutely be applied here.

It is one thing to investigate a crime, catch people based on probable cause, and then prosecute. It is entirely another thing to take a license plate number (pick a number, any number) and look back at everywhere a person has driven. What if an officer wants to find out where his or her ex-spouse has been? What if you become a suspect in a crime because your plates were "scanned" near a crime scene? Do you know everything that's going on around you while you drive?

To 2:06 -- It is also a problem that you can be tracked everywhere you go via your cell phone. And the bigger problem is that no one seems to have objected (yet) to the flood of requests by law enforcement to the cell phone operators for information about individuals and their calling locations. This item posted on Grits links to evidence of 8 million requests by law enforcement to Sprint alone-- requests without probable cause.

If people were perfect, we wouldn't need a bill of rights. But they are not perfect. Some individuals will abuse the power they are given. When that power is the power to arrest and detain, we have to be especially cautious. These databases seem to be springing up at the local level with no thought to privacy, the bill of rights, or possibilities for abuse.

And in the name of economic stimulus? What a joke. How many people could we have hired for the cost of these expensive and invasive contraptions? Makes me wonder if the vendor is a big donor to the Democrats.

Anonymous said...

Tyler currently operated like a police state with the highest levels of incareration in the world. Also Police write twice the number of traffic tickets as any other city in Texas, (and probably the world.)

In their defense, Tyler drivers are the worst in the world.

And I've driven in India.


Mark #1 said...

Uh, is that really what you consider a "response" 2:59?

Anonymous said...

06:10 Tyler is tough but so is Williamson County.

Williamson County's slogan: Come on vacation, leave on probation.

Anonymous said...

This Big Brother crap is getting out of hand. Leave my guns, property, income and whereabouts the hell alone. They keep pushing this stuff, and I reckon there'll be trouble.

Anonymous said...

Yea, that black guy in the white house is a socialist, marxist, facsist...blah blah blah

It ain't Washington DC you people need to worry about. It's the fucking Nazis living across the street.

Anonymous said...

2:06, you're clueless.
"It just continues to amuse me how many people worry so much about there being some nefarious plot to spy on us by "big brother."
It is not amusing to be tracked because some people think you should be, in whatever form (including cell phones - that service paid through our tax dollars).

Anonymous said...

Isn't it funny how often we label someone who disagrees with us a facsist or Nazis? With a lot of folks as soon as they start to get upset they get self righteous and snippy. Then, when they start to get steamed they yell Nazi.

I guess people shouldn't be disagreeing with us.

Beat The Chip said...

I think it's another way to gouge drivers. It's created markets for new products like this one.

Anonymous said...

As some wise philosopher once said, "don't get caught doing anything you wouldn't want plastered all over the front page of the paper and you won't have anything to worry about."

What a silly statement. Take that seriously and, among other things, it would mean you can't have sex with anyone.

Anonymous said...

All i have to say to all of you people that are agaisnt this.Dont go crying to the police when your car gets taken and you want the police to do something about it.