Vermont Cops Are Scanning More License Plates Than Ever, But Not Having More Success

Feb 16, 2016

The collection of time-and-place snapshots of vehicles’ whereabouts in Vermont is on the rise for the third straight year, according to an annual report filed with the Legislature.

Despite privacy concerns surrounding the technology, lawmakers are set to continue to allow police to collect and retain data about thousands of Vermonters without the results the Legislature would need to know if the technology makes the public safer.

Police collected 8.66 million snapshots of license plates across Vermont in the 18 months leading up to Dec. 31, 2015. Each entry includes the time and location where each license plate was spotted by an Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) system. That total is up 2.6 percent from the 18-month period ending Dec. 31, 2014, and up 9.3 percent from the 18 months ending Dec. 31, 2013.

Police keep a trove of the millions of license plate scans under tight control at the Vermont Intelligence Center in Waterbury. Law enforcement officers aren’t allowed to access the state’s central database directly, but must request information using a form that is reviewed by VIC staff, who can search the data if they deem the query to be legitimate.

Law enforcement officers say the technology is a helpful tool that helps public safety by making it easier to find out where certain vehicles were at a given time, or where they weren't. Police used an ALPR to find a missing person in 2014 and found two missing cars in 2013.

Under a state law passed in 2013, VIC officials have reported top-level data about the collection and (far more rare) releases of data from the database for the past three years. That law requires annual reporting and sets limits on who can access the data and what for. But the statute expires in July so lawmakers have to decide this spring how the state will govern the technology from then on.

Privacy advocates criticize ALPRs for collecting data about the travel patterns of drivers who aren’t suspected of a crime – data collection some say amounts to an unconstitutional search. As a matter of public policy, Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Vermont chapter, has said the technology, on which Vermont cops have spent $1 million (mostly in federal homeland security grants) doesn't seem like a good investment.

“This is a very expensive form of investigation,” he told VPR in 2014. “I think it would be hard for anybody doing a cost-benefit analysis to think that this was the way that police resources should be allocated. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

  The new data from the Vermont Intelligence Center, as in years past, stops at the door: There’s no information about how officers use the data they get through the database’s search results and no information about the number of cases – if any – the information was relevant to.

However, this year’s data shows police turned to the license plate database less in 2015 than in 2014. Law enforcement entries – which could mean a historical search of all license plates in the data or adding a specific license plate to the system’s statewide “hot list” – went down from 216 in 2014 to 184 in 2015, a 15 percent drop.

The hit rate of the database – that is, the rate at which searching for a license plate in a given timespan or area generated actual results from the database – remained between 15 and 20 percent in 2015, as it has since the state started tracking the data.

Once the information relevant to the search is sent to the requesting officer, VIC is done with the request. There is no follow up to determine if the information provided was useful.

A wide-ranging privacy bill passed by the Senate this year, if enacted into law, would continue to allow police to retain license plate data for up to 18 months. It would also create criminal penalties for abuse of the data. Anyone using data from the license plate database for use other than legitimate police work would be subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and two years of prison time.