Use Of Controversial License Plate Scanners Rising Among Vermont Police

Mar 6, 2015

Vermont law enforcement officers expanded their use of Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems in 2014, according to a new report. Police more than doubled the number of searches of the statewide license plate database in criminal investigations.

The annual report to the state legislature comes as lawmakers prepare to take another look at the law governing the controversial law enforcement tool. Existing legislation expires this year.

"I think it's a good thing that the officers in the field are learning how to use that and using this technology to help them solve crimes." - Lt. Kevin Lane, Vermont Intelligence Center

Lt. Kevin Lane is the director of the Vermont Intelligence Center, which operates the state’s central database where license plate readings are stored. He says the increase in use shows officers are adapting to the new tool.

“It’s still a relatively new system, new technology that we’re using,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing that the officers in the field are learning how to use that and using this technology to help them solve crimes; and to find people that may be suspects, and at the same time it’s used as a tool to eliminate people as suspects as well.”

The license plate readers, which are mounted on police cars, capture images of vehicles as they go by and identify the license plate number individually, simultaneously recording the time and place where the photo was taken. The plate number is then checked against a statewide “hot list” populated with vehicles wanted in relation to criminal cases, missing persons investigations or even a lapsed registration.

The data – including time and location – is also stored. Each time a license plate reader snaps a photo it’s uploaded to the statewide database and held for 18 months. In the 18 months that ended Dec. 31, 2014, the 67 license plate readers in Vermont had stored 8,438,377 license plate sightings.

Privacy advocates such as Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, have raised concerns that the license plate readers cause an unwarranted invasion into the privacy of Vermonters not suspected of a crime.

“We continue to feel that a citizen’s right to privacy is violated whenever government records movements of individuals who aren’t subjects of an investigation,” he said.

License plate readers have been in Vermont in increasing numbers for years, and that flow continued in 2014 with six more police cars equipped with the technology at a cost of about $20,000 per vehicle. All told, law enforcement in Vermont has spent about $1 million on license plate readers since they started purchasing them in mid-2009 – most of it with federal money.

"We continue to feel that a citizen's right to privacy is violated whenever government records movements of individuals who aren't subjects of an investigation." - Allen Gilbert, ACLU

Despite these investments, it’s unclear how much the equipment helps keep the public safe. A VPR investigation of ALPR use in 2013 showed that with nearly 8 million plate reads, fewer than five cases were solved with the help of the technology.

In the 2014 annual report, released last month, VIC officials included two success stories in which law enforcement successfully used the technology to find missing people.

“I thought this part was good to add in because we do report a lot of the data, and a lot of it is the raw numbers, which is good and important,” Lane said. “But I think it’s also important to show some of the success stories that we’ve had.”

It’s unclear if license plate readers assisted additional cases because agencies that request and receive information from the database aren’t required to share the outcome. Once VIC sends the data to police in the field, they rarely find out if it was useful.

The frequency with which VIC officials shared information from the state’s license plate reader database went up dramatically in 2014, as did the number of times officers requested information.

Officers requested information from the license plate database 221 times in 2014, more than double the 2013 tally of 105 requests.

Of the 221 requests in 2014, 39 resulted in a release of information. A release of information requires officials at VIC to determine that the search is legitimate for law enforcement purposes. If the license plate an officer is searching for has never been scanned in the state, no data can be released.

The data release rate in 2014 of 17.6 percent compared to 2013’s rate of 15.2 percent. Sixteen of 105 requests resulted in a release of information.

The total number of releases is rising, Lane says, as officers adjust to the new tool. But Gilbert says the $1 million cost of the equipment might be better spent on something else.

“That’s getting to be serious money,” he says. “And it’s several officers who could be on the ground in their cruisers rather than technology that doesn’t seem to be yielding a lot of useful information.”

Gilbert is lobbying the legislature to reduce the amount of time the statewide database can hold the information collected by ALPR units in the field from 18 months to 24 hours. He says if the stated purpose of the units is to find wanted criminals or missing people then 24 hours should be long enough.

“I think we’ve got to have a serious conversation about why exactly we’re collecting this data, and we [at the ACLU] actually think 24 hours is very reasonable. The reason that’s given for the use of these systems is to catch people for whom there are outstanding warrants, for people who may be lost, missing, and a [hot list] is developed every day and usually that data is good for that day, so it doesn’t seem that we have much of a need to collect it and store it for 18 months.”

If officers do want to keep a subset of the data beyond the legal time frame for an ongoing investigation, Gilbert says, there is already a provision in law that allows that on a case-by-case basis. 

Gilbert says he’s optimistic a bill restricting data retention to 24 hours could pass in the Legislature. Lawmakers are taking up the issue in the coming weeks.