License plate scanners in use by the Southington Police Department have resulted in more than 150 arrests or infractions issued in the past nine months, but the mass collection of plate data stored by police remains a concern for the American Civil Liberties Union, which describes the practice as retroactive surveillance.
Southington police installed the Vigilant Video license plate reader system on a patrol car last August. That car is used every day for traffic patrols.
Between Dec. 12, 2012, and Aug. 28, 158 infractions and summons were issued as a result of the system. The most common violations found were unregistered cars or drivers without insurance, according to police Sgt. Jeffrey Dobratz. Infractions and summons issued as a result of the license plate scanners have averaged more than 17 per month since last year.
“I think they’re very effective,” said Southington Police Chief Jack Daly. “It’s doing its job.”
The Vigilant Video camera system, mounted on the outside of a patrol car, scans the roadway while moving or stationary. Infrared imaging captures license plate numbers from nearby cars and the system runs them through a national database looking for matches with unregistered or stolen vehicles. If hits are found, the officer is alerted by a message on the system’s computer screen.
In addition to vehicle violations, plates linked to cars owned by supervised persons are also flagged, Dobratz said and the officer is notified. Supervised persons include those missing, on parole or on probation. Cars registered to those on the sex offender registry and the terror watch list are also flagged.
The plate must be run through another police database, Collect, to find out more information on the driver and before a stop is made for a potential violation, according to Brian Shockley, Vigilant Video marketing vice president.
“There’s no personal information captured in regard to the license plate,” he said. “We’re not tracking people.”
The system’s strength lies in the speed with which it captures license plate numbers and runs them through law enforcement databases without any work by an officer. Daly said that in August, the town’s one Vigilant Video-equipped police car checked nearly 30,000 plates. That wouldn’t have been practical with manual checks.
“When you think of the complexity — in a fraction of a second it’s able to go through a database, read the plate, found out whether a car was stolen — it’s an amazing system,” Daly said. “Down the road, hopefully they’ll be in every cruiser.”
Every plate scanned, whether a registered hit or not, is sent to a database run by the Newington Police Department for a group of 11 departments. In addition to the plate number the date, time and GPS location of each scan is saved.
Newington Police Chief Richard Mulhall said that data is voluntarily provided by departments and saved for five years. Even if no hit on a car was flagged at a time, knowing where a car was at a given time can help in future investigations, according to Mulhall.
“As we get used to the technology, we’re going to be able to do a lot of good investigations,” he said.
There’s no personal information connected to the saved plate data, Mulhall said, and it isn’t nearly as intrusive as the information voluntarily posted by some online.
David McGuire, an attorney with the Connecticut chapter of the ACLU, said the number of saved license plate scans and accompanying location data can create a picture of a person’s habits, travels and more. While license plate scanners can be effective in fighting crime, McGuire said saving the location of scans for years serves little purpose and provides the government with “retroactive surveillance” that can be used without a warrant.
While personal information isn’t given by the license plate scanner systems, most often cars are driven by their owner and data collected on that car are details of that owner’s travels, McGuire said.
He said it was also troubling that those on probation or on a registry would be flagged without committing a crime.
A bill brought up during the last legislative session to limit the storage time for scans to 21 days didn’t make it out of committee. McGuire said it’ll be brought up again in the next legislative session.
“It’s one of the issues we get a strong reaction from by members of the public,” he said. “People are creeped out by it.”
Mulhall said he’s opposed a previously proposed limit of 14 days for plate information storage.
“To us, it’s way too small,” he said.
Cheshire police have received demonstrations of license plate readers from several companies, according to Lt. James Fasano, but don’t yet have any. A trial scheduled for last week was scrapped because the license plate reader system required more memory than was installed in the police car computers.
Once the cruiser computers are upgraded the department will look into buying reader systems.
“It’s a great idea,” Fasano said. “We have demo-ed them; we like them.”
Concerns about privacy have stemmed from misunderstandings about the system, Fasano said. Police officers don’t see names associated with the thousands of license plate numbers scanned and have to run the plates in a separate system before making a traffic stop.
Meriden and Wallingford police departments don’t have license plate scanners but officials expect to eventually buy them.
“I believe that’s the way of the future,” said Wallingford Lt. Marc Mikulski.