Palm Beach County police using license tag scanners to search for fugitives
South Florida Sun-Sentinel | February 19, 2007
Jason B. Gumer
There's a new twist to a crime-fighting staple. Police have long tracked license plates to help them find criminals. Now they're adding new, high-tech gadgets that will help them do that with more speed and efficiency -- without lifting a finger.
Local law enforcement officers are turning to a new video surveillance technology that scans license plates and alerts officers to warrants, criminal backgrounds or stolen vehicles in seconds.
Police and community leaders say the technology is an invaluable crime-fighting tool, yet, some civil liberties advocates are questioning the move.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office will soon begin using a $33,000 mobile license plate recognition system. The multi-camera system can be installed in an unmarked car and will read license plates at multiple directions and angles, search criminal databases and notify police, said Capt. Jack Strenges, commander of the violent-crimes division.
"We can create our own databases for gang members, sex offenders or any type of people that we are looking for," Strenges said. "We get a daily download update with stolen vehicles, warrants and missing persons."
Deputies will use the technology to find stolen vehicles and to identify and track gang members, sexual offenders and suspects. The system can check a row of vehicles in a parking lot as well as identify moving vehicles.
"We are doing nothing more than recording tags and checking them to solve criminal investigations. ... This will be huge for us," Strenges said.
Meanwhile, the 2,000-resident city of Atlantis will install a $250,000 security-camera system that will photograph license plates of all vehicles entering the community. Automatically, numbers will be run through state and national crime databases and police will be notified if there is a "hit" on the tag.
"We want to make sure the town is as safe as possible," Atlantis Police Chief Robert Mangold said.
Still, civil liberties advocates are raising objections.
"There have been so many errors pointed out in these databases that I have grave concerns over how this information is going to be used and what databases this will be matched against," said Dr. Ethelene Jones, president of the American Civil Liberties Union's Palm Beach County Chapter. "It's another example of the rapidly increasing efforts to invade our privacy -- to spy on us."
However, Mangold defended the system.
"Our intent is not to violate civil rights, but cops do have the ability to run tags on a constant basis," Mangold said.
Constitutional questions can arise from the use of this technology, said Randall Marshall, ACLU of Florida legal director.
"This truly is a big-brother kind of tool for law enforcement," he said.
"Clearly, the more affluent municipalities have more money to spend on these new toys and perhaps there is a sense of elitism about who ought to be allowed to go through their towns," Marshall said. "They can't prevent people from driving through, but they can make a note that they will check you out if you are coming in."
Atlantis has a median household income of $71,019, according to the 2000 census. The city is surrounded by a wall.
The 321-resident coastal town of Manalapan, with a per-capita income of $143,729, installed the camera technology in 2004.
"It's not a civil-liberties violation," Atlantis Mayor Fred Furtado said. "It's just that with everything that's happening around today with gangs and everything else, we are taking precautions to protect our citizens."
Bud Barrett, 77, a 14-year Atlantis resident, said he supports the new system.
"In this day and age, we need that type of security because of all the crime in Palm Beach [County]. It's grown out of control," Barrett said. "Unfortunately we are beyond those [civil liberty] concerns. Ten years ago I would have been against this, but not now."
In Manalapan, the initial system, in a small residential area, has been expanded to between 12 and 17 cameras monitoring streets throughout the town, including a stretch of State Road A1A.
Manalapan's system, which nets around two hits per month, cost about $75,000, and $3,000 a month to operate, according to Police Chief Clay Walker.
An officer always runs a second computer check to prevent errors.
"The courts have ruled that you have no expectation of privacy in public places," Walker said.
Marc Rotenberg, Georgetown University law professor and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said he believes that civil liberty and privacy issues arise from these technologies, most notably the opportunity for abuse.
"This can be a violation of privacy if there is not an attempt to build in safeguards at the front end," Rotenberg said. "You always have to worry about the possibility that these systems will be used by off-duty police, for retaliation or in ways that are unfair or discriminatory. It doesn't mean that you don't use them, but there needs to be greater accountability and oversight to prevent misuse."
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