License To Scan: Vt. Police Stored Millions Of Plate Readings Last Year

Jan 16, 2014

Vermont law enforcement agencies recorded almost 8 million license plate readings through the use of Automated License Plate Recognition Systems (ALPRs) between July 1, 2012 and Dec. 31, 2013, according to a state police report to lawmakers.

The report [PDF], required by legislation passed last year that governs the use of the systems, sheds light on how law enforcement officials around the state use the new technology.

According to the report, there are 61 ALPR units in use by local, county and state law enforcement agencies around the state. The Vermont State Police alone recorded 1,335,027 license plate readings in the 18-month time period covered in the report. Local agencies, such as Castleton police, recorded as few as 2,765 readings, according to the report. In total, the 61 units recorded 7,921,182 license plate reads over 18 months.

All ALPR readings in the state are transmitted to the Vermont Intelligence Center, which is operated by the Vermont State Police. While any agency in the state can freely submit data to VIC, agencies must submit written requests in order to get data held in the VIC database.

Requests submitted to the database can be historical – a search for when and where a vehicle has been – or set up an active search so that officers are alerted in real time if their ALPR unit scans that license plate. 

Credit Vermont Intelligence Center / Vermont State Police

Executive Sgt. John Sly of the Rutland City police said the devices could be used in a kidnapping case.

“If we find that we’re looking for a kidnap suspect, and it was described as a blue Chevy, they can query that database in the area of interest and see if any license plates were read that would match a blue Chevy,” he said.

Rutland police scanned more than half a million license plates over the study period. Sly said the information is extremely helpful.

“It followed the same information technology mindset that went along with the computers in the cars, the digital video systems," he said. "It is new and emerging technology that makes us far more efficient in what we do.”

Allen Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU lobbied last year for legislation that put restrictions on how long police can store the data and who has access to it. Both Gilbert and the new report note that neither law enforcement officials nor the ACLU was particularly happy with the resulting legislation.

Gilbert said that after seeing the data, he wishes the ACLU had lobbied to prevent police from storing the data at all, not the 30-day window it ultimately pushed for. (The law, as signed, allows law enforcement to store data for up to 18 months).

"Frankly, if I were looking at the bill again today, I would say that the data should not be retained at all, and if they want to use ALPRs for looking for people who have outstanding warrants, do it when you first read the plate when the car goes whizzing by," he said. "Otherwise, if there's not a hit on the so-called 'hot list' in the cruiser's database, I don't think the record should be retained."

There were 94 requests for information submitted to VIC. Law enforcement officers are also able to search their own vehicle’s ALPR unit for results recorded by that specific unit. Such searches were performed 11 times by state and local law enforcement during the 18-month window from July 2012 through December 2013.

Missing persons searches were the leading reason police searched the ALPR database.
Credit Vermont Intelligence Center

The most common reason law enforcement officials tapped the database in an effort to find a certain vehicle was in the case of missing persons. Other stated reasons include smuggling, domestic violence, suicidal individuals and bank robberies.

Of all 105 law enforcement searches of the VIC database and in-car data recorders, just 40 resulted in what law enforcement officials refer to as “hits,” which means the database contained the plate number officers were searching for. Three of those hits were the results of requests by agencies in jurisdictions bordering Vermont.

With more than 12 license plate reads for every citizen of Vermont over the 18 month period covered in the study, the state police database has vast amounts of data including the time, date and location of various vehicles throughout the state.

Gilbert said the report, for him, highlights an important question.

"I think this notion - that if you can collect the information, do, because you may not know when it might be useful - that's a very different kind of society than we've lived in before, and I don't think we've really come to terms with that yet."

For information on how many license plate readings were captured by different agencies across the state, see the chart below.

Source: Vermont Intelligence Center/Chart: Matt Parrilla, VPR Staff