Experimental License-plate Scanners Track Cars on Highways
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Experimental License-plate Scanners Track Cars on Highways

Toledo Blade | January 5, 2005

An experimental license-plate scanning system allowed state troopers to capture 23 criminal suspects and recover 24 stolen vehicles during a recent four-month test on the Ohio Turnpike, the Ohio Highway Patrol announced yesterday.

But whether the system has a future on the turnpike and other state highways remains to be decided, a patrol spokesman said.

For the test, Automatic Plate Recognition scanners were mounted at the turnpike's entrance plazas near the Pennsylvania and Indiana borders and in two state patrol cruisers. The devices scanned all license plates and compared the results with lists of vehicles "wanted" because they were reported stolen, the license plates were reported stolen, or authorities had arrest warrants for the registered owners.

Positive matches were followed up by troopers confirming the plate on the vehicle before pulling it over.

According to the announcement, the 24 stolen vehicles were worth a combined $221,000 and represented a 50 percent increase in stolen-vehicle recoveries compared with the same dates in 2003.

The patrol's announcement noted that the recovered vehicles included two stolen truck trailers, which it said indicated a potential homeland-security benefit from the system.

Lt. Rick Zwayer, a spokesman at highway patrol headquarters in Columbus, said he was not aware of those particular trailers containing any sensitive cargo.

Lieutenant Zwayer could not provide information yesterday about the charges brought against those who were arrested, nor explain why the number of arrests was lower than the stolen car recovery count.

The scanning system was paid for with a $61,000 federal grant.

At its start, the experiment was denounced by civil liberties interests, on the grounds that it could be used to compile surveillance records of all vehicular activity.

Jeff Gamso, the Ohio legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he is "still skeptical" that the technology's application won't eventually be extended beyond identifying stolen cars or wanted drivers.

"Good for them for having recovered stolen cars," Mr. Gamso said. "But I remain concerned about the incremental invasion of people's privacy."

While the highway patrol promises that any data about vehicles that doesn't generate a "wanted" match is not retained, Mr. Gamso said, "What I'd like to know is that they're continuing to 'lose' that information three years from now."

While the test results indicate that the system has potential for effective use, Lieutenant Zwayer said, further assessment is necessary to determine if the benefit is appropriate to the cost of expanding it.

Col. Paul McClellan, superintendent of the highway patrol, will meet with technical experts and the Ohio Controlling Board to discuss the results and evaluate the system's potential for long-term - and potentially wider - use, the lieutenant said.

Mr. Gamso said the ACLU might press for consideration of the civil liberties angle when such a decision is made.


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