Friday, February 19, 2016

License plate readers beef up debtors' prison enforcement arm

The Austin Statesman has a feature on the most insidious enforcement mechanism yet for Texas' debtors prison system, coercing payments from indigent defendants via threat of incarceration.

Following up on the EFF report regarding license-plate reader vendors and roadside debt collection by police in Texas, Eric Dexheimer and Tony Plohetski at the Austin Statesman delved into the topic in more detail in today's paper. The story opened with this workaday description of what promises soon to become the future of Texas traffic enforcement:
When Guadalupe County Precinct 3 Deputy Constable Jesse Rosales arrives to work each morning, his computer greets him with a list of people who have outstanding warrants, mostly for minor crimes like traffic offenses. In the past, finding the offenders was time-consuming, and Rosales says there were plenty of days he came up empty.

Yet unlike the old warrant lists, the ones the deputy receives today are a technological wonder. Each defendant’s name is accompanied by a picture of his vehicle; an aerial photograph pinpoints the exact location where the car was observed only hours earlier.
This isn't some futuristic Big-Brotherish dystopian vision, it's what traffic enforcement cops at the local constable's office do with their time today and tomorrow in Guadalupe County, Texas. Continued the Statesman:
The pictures Rosales uses are made possible by high-speed cameras attached to fleets of private cars driven around by bank and finance company repo men cruising neighborhoods in search of delinquent auto loans. Nationally, about 2,300 photos per minute flow into a massive database of license plate photos maintained by a Fort Worth company called Digital Recognition Network.

Then, in a partnership that civil libertarians and privacy advocates worry could cross the line from efficient policing to intrusive government and corporate snooping, client law enforcement agencies use that information to obtain up-to-date locations of scofflaws who owe money. When Rosales finds one of his targets using the photos and his own company-supplied license plate reading camera, the person can be arrested, or pay up right away — 10 months ago, the deputy also had a credit card reader installed in his cruiser.

In exchange, a Digital Recognition Network-affiliated company called Vigilant Solutions gets to keep a 25 percent fee tacked onto the fine. For a standard traffic violation warrant, that comes to about $75.

In recent months, constables and the sheriff’s department in Guadalupe County have installed the system, as have the cities of Kyle and Lakeway. (Lakeway owns its cameras and so gives no money to Vigilant from warrant collections.) Others around the state say they are considering it. Those using it report they are thrilled with the results. Letting people pay directly to police is convenient for defendants, they say, and potentially keeps them out of jail.

It has also been lucrative. A year ago, Rosales was working as a constable’s deputy only one day a week. But after he began bringing in thousands of dollars a month, “I went to our court and asked for a full-time person,” said Guadalupe County Commissioner Jim Wolverton.
Quite a few other states have regulated or even prohibited long-term retention of license plate reader generated location data by law enforcement, with Utah and Arkansas banning "private companies from amassing license plate data" entirely, the paper reported.

See related Grits posts:


Chris H said...

A friend in DFW recently had a run in with enforcement via license plate reader, only that jurisdiction hasn't adopted a system to pay on the side of the road.

On a Friday evening he gets a call from the court that he has an outstanding capias warrant. He agrees to come in on Monday to pay it. On Sunday night, his car gets tagged by a license plate reader cop. He's arrested, car towed and spends the night in jail and pays the fine on Monday - when the court would be open and he could.

One hand doesn't know what the other is doing.

Anonymous said...

Grits such articles make you the KING of Texas Criminal Justice blogs. This past Tuesday I was pulled by a Harris County Precinct 4 cop for supposedly not having my headlights on. Just the day before(Monday) I had replaced the bulbs on my headlights so I was SURE they were working. My insurance had just expired and I was planning to renew it by this weekend. He gave me a ticket for lack of insurance but his body language suggested to me that he knew that before he pulled me over. It was just a weird experience and your article on License Plate Readers just confirms my suspicion that it was not a random traffic stop. Great article!!

Lee said...

Instead of responding to emergencies an protecting the public from dangerous criminals, this guy just sits in the median fundraising.....WOW

Anonymous said...

Why does the govt. want Apple to unlock passwords when the govt already knows every conversation on out cell phones?

Unknown said...

Thanks Grits, you're my favorite eye-opening breakfast! Here in Denver, I've been wondering what technology and/or superpowers our local LEOs have been using to instigate contact with the suspects and victims involved in last year's newsworthy rash of officer-involved shootings. Interestingly, most of the incidents involved individuals with "outstanding felony warrants" and the media never explained just how the officers "spotted the subject and instigated a traffic stop". Our local LEOs are known to instigate traffic stops only when there's money in it, and thanks to Grits, I know what Colorado Open Records Requests to file next.

Joorie Doodie said...

There are just so many potential problems with this that the legislature needs to put a stop to it. Traffic enforcement in many cities is not so much about safety, but rather, mostly revenue-driven. The local-yokels, left to their own devices will gladly jump on this bandwagon without considering the potential drawbacks just like many of them have been snookered into these ill-fated deals involving red-light cameras and other automated traffic enforcement systems:


1. There will be cops in some places who will be assigned to sit around all day and ping license plates instead of patrolling.

2. Like what happened with "Chris H" above: Inevitably erroneous and outdated information in databases will get copied and bought and sold. You'll have people getting repeatedly pulled over and hassled for money even though they already paid their fines to a court. Do you really think we can depend on civil-service hacks to always be careful and make sure information goes to the right place in a timely manner?

3. This will affect the poor more than the affluent. Able to whip out a credit card and pay the fine you knowingly disregarded? Swipe your card and go on your merry way. Poor single mom living a hand-to-mouth existence with bad credit and little cash on hand? Spend the night in jail.

Unknown said...

Folks should be taken to see a judge if they can not pay. Municipal court in Austin has days folks can go in to see a judge if they have warrants. jp courts should do the same. Police should not be caught in this deli a of having arrested people who can not pay and no judge around. Get job and home afforestation with phone number and release them to appear in court. Phil Sanders

BrazosBoy said...

It is even worse. If a citizen lays out a traffic fine (time served, citizen is still charged $30.00 for paying off fine with jail time. Don't pay the 30 bucks and your name remains on the "active warrant" list and subject to arrest.

Anonymous said...

Miss Tirrie I have always believed local media houses are under some kind of gay order regarding these intrusive technologies. They are part of the problem

Anonymous said...

Oops gag order

The Comedian said...

If you get stopped and don't have a credit card, ask if you can pay in cash, just like the good ole days.

Yes said...

I see no problem with using available technology to assist in the efficiency of the officers. Seems folks would complain if the officer (or officers) drove around and occasionally got lucky by locating fugitives the old way (generally inefficienct) and they complain if officers are productive at locating VIOLATORS of the law. So as a tax payer, you're happy with inefficiency?

I agree that violators should be brought before a judge, but judges don't work 24hrs a day. Hell some don't work 1/2 a day.
Phill Sanders - stated get their (the violator's) home address and work officer can ask those questions, but who's to say that the violator will either provide a correct address or an address at all? If they did provide an address, folks would complain that officers then arrested the violator at work or at home in front of their kids.

Bottom line is take care of (not guilty, DDC, community service, pay fine, etc) traffic violations as they will often catch up w/ you and you'll blame someone else for your lack of accountability.

Yes said...

Headlights not "on" are not the same as a defective headlight. I'm sure you are correct that your bulbs (BOTH of which you replaced) were working, but your switch was likely off.

I had an officer tell me once that headlights are required 30minutes after sunset and 30minutes before sunrise or something like that and officers can verify sunset/sunrise times with dispatch or even the Weather Channel app.

The body language thing could have been for your "planning to renew it" statement or not, just my guess. Something he likely hears a lot.

George said...

@ Yes,

Sounds like you're either in the law enforcement field or some sort or work as a representative of the the private companies raking in profits from this relatively new technology. If not, you sure sound like an apologist supporting those fields. And please, I'm not bashing law enforcement, it just happens to be the field that arrests people, fines them and confines them. We need law enforcement no doubt, what we don't need is our publicly funded law enforcement agencies supporting private industry.

The bottom line is this, people who have outstanding moving vehicle citations, those who have outstanding warrants of various types, who are behind in loan payments etc. are already most likely not the affluent members of our society. It's this segment of society that are the most likely to be targeted for the simple reason that they don't have the money to take of their fines and legal woes. This is not new knowledge and private companies will continue to come up with ways to capitalize on the people who can afford it the least leading to a debtor's prison system.

The big question is what to do about it. For one thing, IMHO, it's not the government's job to help private companies rake in profits from the very individuals who help fund their salaries. It's not just the companies such as Vigilant, think of the private prisons as well or the companies that supply probation/parole with the ankle monitors, the companies selling voice time to incarcerated citizens with loved ones. There's a LOT of money in securing contracts with the "justice" systems.

This is just the tip of the iceberg folks, soon there will be so many license plate readers around that our government will know where everyone's vehicle is at pretty much anytime that they want to. There are some BIG privacy issues here, just wait until each vehicle will send out a gps signal (many new vehicles already have this), much like a tracking device, that our government will have access to, of course with the help of private industry. What's next, private companies lobbying for implants on all citizens so that our every step is monitored?

Contact your state representatives and let them know how you feel about this. Register to vote, educate yourself about the issues and identify the candidates who are the most likely to represent your views and then actually go vote. Keep track of how your representatives actually vote and let them now how you feel when they stray from the platform they ran on. Applaud them when they truly lead and look after the interests of their constituents instead of special interest group and/or private companies -- often the same. This is how each of us can do our civil duty, by voting and educating ourselves on how our governments operate, reaching out and maintaining contact with the individuals who we elect.

Yes said...

While I have appreciation for privacy, these companies are only providing a service that makes officer's jobs more efficient. Vehicle license plates are public, in that they must be displayed on a vehicle and officers can run them one or 200,000 at a time. Innovation helps all industries and that I support.

While I don't agree w/ any direct profit sharing, someone is going to develop the next great thing or innovative thing and that I am not opposed to any industry.

Say the food stamp program and or social security, section 8 is run against known wanted folks and their benefits are cut off until the warrants are cleared. Folks would complain yet again for being held accountable and someone developed that software or mechanism. Those on the above programs may or may not have or can afford a car for that I agree, whereas if they can afford a car and drive - Everyone should be subject to the same universal standards of being held accountable.

Anonymous said...

@anon 619; I believe that constable knew before he stopped you that your insurance had just run out; do not the ins. cos. provide such data to Austin?

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