Talk about an invasion of privacy!
New police license plate scanner eyes criminals | ajc.com
New police license plate scanner eyes criminals
By DOUG NURSE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Friday, March 20, 2009
You know that anxious feeling you get whenever a police car is behind you?
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The license scanner mounts magnetically to the trunk of a patrol car.
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For bad guys traveling the Ga. 400 corridor, that feeling is about to get a whole lot worse.
Alpharetta and Sandy Springs police departments have a new gizmo that mounts on patrol cars and is capable of reading up to 18 to 20 license plates a second, and detecting which ones the police need to stop.
The license plate reader can scan license plates in the hurly-burly of Ga. 400 — going in both directions. It can accurately read license plates of cars going 120 mph in rain, dark, or sunshine.
“It’s a great thing,” said Alpharetta Public Safety Director Gary George. “Think of Amber Alerts, stolen cars, outstanding warrants.”
Alpharetta and Sandy Springs each have one license-plate reader, which costs $22,000 to $35,000, but several cars are wired for it.
“We keep it on the road constantly,” said spokesman George Gordon. “You can unplug it and transfer to another car in two minutes.”
Alpharetta Police Officer John Allen said that a few weeks after the system became went online last August, he was driving home after a shift when the system alerted him that he had passed a stolen car. He wheeled around, and after a chase, arrested the thief.
“I never even saw the tag myself,” Allen said. “I would have just kept going. It catches things I would be unable to see.”
It’s helped find a dead body in a stolen car in New York. In New Haven, Conn., police used them to catch tax delinquents. In a four-month trial in Ohio, the highway patrol captured 23 suspects, and recovered 24 stolen cars.
Sandy Springs Officer Scott Ellis said that in the past month, he’s recovered three stolen cars that might otherwise not have been recovered. He said he hasn’t snagged a stolen car while it’s being driven, but it’s a matter of time.
“I would think it would discourage bad guys from coming to Sandy Springs,” he said.
License-readers are becoming more common. Atlanta, the Georgia Highway Patrol, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties have them as well.
The license-plate reader is not a Big Brother-type surveillance device, George said. It scans and discards the license tags on cars that have no warrants on them, hanging only on to wanted plates in the police database. Even if it did store all the license plates it encountered, the license-plate reader still would not be an invasion of privacy, he said.
“You have no expectation of privacy on a public road,” George said. “I don’t want us to be Big Brother.”
Whether it’s a proper tool for law enforcement depends on how it’s used, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington D.C.
“The same technology that can be used to identify unregistered vehicles can also identify cars of participants in a political rally, or who go to an abortion clinic or a church or a mosque,” Rotenberg said. “There needs to be some oversight.”
The license-plate reader works using infrared light to illuminate plates across four lanes of traffic, two on each side. A camera snaps a picture and the computer converts it into digital characters and compares them with an FBI list of wanted or missing license plates. An updated list is downloaded daily into the officer’s car computer.
When the computer gets a hit, an alarm sounds and a picture of the suspect car pops up on a screen, and the crime it is suspected of being involved in. The system photographs the suspect car, records the police car’s GPS coordinates, and the time and date. Police must verify the car is wanted because the computer can’t distinguish between a Texas license plate from a Georgia plate.
The system can help put a suspect at a crime scene, spotting and identifying witnesses, according to the Web site of Remington ELSAG, a manufacturer.
Allen predicts more and more departments will start acquiring license plate readers in Georgia.
“Absolutely, they’ll become more common,” he said. “It’s very helpful in catching these vehicles and perpetrators. It makes it much easier to find them.”