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Debated license plate readers used throughout county

The Gwinnett County Police Department Traffic Unit will be using new license plate reader (LPR) equipment which automatically runs every license plate that travels by the police car. The LPR device that costs about $20,000 per police car checks for expired, suspended tags, no valid insurance, sex offenders and wanted persons in a national data base. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

The Gwinnett County Police Department Traffic Unit will be using new license plate reader (LPR) equipment which automatically runs every license plate that travels by the police car. The LPR device that costs about $20,000 per police car checks for expired, suspended tags, no valid insurance, sex offenders and wanted persons in a national data base. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

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Gwinnett County police officer J.A. Tucker communicates with other officers on the radio while overlooking the software used with the license plate reader (LPR) equipment. Tucker and other members of the traffic unit patrolled Herrington Road in Lawrenceville in April. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

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Gwinnett County police officer J.A. Tucker overlooks the software used with the license plate reader (LPR) equipment which reads a hit. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

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Gwinnett County Police Department traffic unit officers J.A. Tucker and Brad Howard demonstrate how their new electric device can scan finger prints out in the field and run the print through a national data base. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

HOW THEY WORK

• Cameras, mounted on patrol cars or fixed objects, take photos of passing objects

• The system identifies license plates within photos, converting their numbers to machine-readable text

• Those numbers are automatically checked against desired lists — databases of suspended licenses or expired tags, wanted persons lists or sex offender registries, for example

• If a match appears, an instant alert is provided to the system operator

• Photos (including tag number and date, time and location) are stored for a length of time determined by individual law enforcement agencies

LAWRENCEVILLE — Gwinnett’s police and sheriff’s departments have them. So do the county’s six municipal police departments. The Georgia State Patrol uses them here, too.

Ask the American Civil Liberties Union and it’s a big brother problem, another sign that the government is (successfully) trying to track our every move. Ask law enforcement, and they’re a useful tool in cracking cases and keeping unsafe drivers off the streets.

The conversation about license plate readers — automated cameras that take and store images of passing vehicles’ tags, abbreviated as LPRs — has been put into overdrive.

Earlier this month, the ACLU released a study dubbed “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements.” The organization filed records requests with 587 law enforcement agencies from 38 different states regarding their “policies, procedures and practices” for LPRs. They heard back from 293 agencies.

What they believe they found is “pervasive, permanent monitoring,” the potential for abusive tracking, institutional abuse and discriminatory targeting against innocent, everyday people.

“And license plate readers can be used for tracking people’s movements for months or years on end,” the ACLU report said, “chilling the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association.”

Local law enforcement, though, said no such thing is happening.

Between the two of them, the Gwinnett County police and sheriff’s office operate 12 vehicle-mounted LPRs. GCPD uses its eight primarily for traffic enforcement (finding expired tags, suspended licenses) and has at least one on the road 24 hours a day. GCSO’s four LPRs are typically used only as deputies drive from one warrant location to another, Sgt. James Redfern said.

The devices read passing plates automatically and alert law enforcement officers when a tag matches one on a database, be it a list of wanted persons, registered sex offenders or suspended drivers, for example.

Whether it’s a match at the time or not, each image taken by Gwinnett’s police and sheriff’s departments is “stored in a secure data location” for five years before being auto-deleted, police Cpl. Jake Smith said. While the files are available, they’re used to help cases, not create them, authorities said — big brother isn’t building a map of John Q. Public’s daily travels.

“The files are only accessed if there is a suspect vehicle that needs to be researched for a criminal investigation or warrant for a person,” Smith said. GCPD got its first LPRs in the summer of 2011.

Said Redfern, whose overseen GCSO’s LPR program since its implementation in 2009: “The computer’s not doing anything a human eye can’t do … The information that’s actually being collected is not being used unless there’s a criminal investigation and warrant for that person. We’re not going through and saying, ‘Let’s see where Joe Blow is going.’”

The county’s five-year retention rate is on the higher end of the spectrum, according to the data collected by the ACLU, but certainly not unprecedented. Many departments had similar policies, and many more had no hard and fast rule about image retention periods.

All six of Gwinnett’s municipal departments have their own LPRs and policies.

Lawrenceville and Norcross police each have two units while the other four departments (Duluth, Lilburn, Snellville and Suwanee) use just one.

Suwanee Police Capt. Cass Mooney said his department’s LPR unit is used for things like traffic enforcement and searches for wanted persons, and also regularly sweeps the city’s parks for tags connected to registered sex offenders. Images are archived for about 30 days, he said, but “only searched in relationship to active criminal cases.”

“In other words, if we had a tag number on a suspect then we would search the database to see if that tag had been scanned,” Mooney said.

Snellville Police Capt. Greg Perry said his department stores images from its one LPR unit for about 90 days.

“Generally the system is used for immediate enforcement,” Perry said, “related to registration violations, insurance violations, and fugitive identification for those fugitives that the tag is linked to their active warrant.”

The Georgia State Patrol operates 33 plate readers throughout the state, primarily for enforcement of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes like those on Interstate 85 in Gwinnett, a spokesperson said.

From a law enforcement standpoint, programs like those in Gwinnett have certainly been successful.

Redfern estimated that his office had “easily” made somewhere between 800 and 1,000 arrests thanks directly to LPRs. Gwinnett police have since stopped specifically tracking LPR-led arrests, but one month in 2011 netted four stolen vehicles and 55 wanted persons.

“The program has definitely been successful in terms of identifying wanted people, stolen cars, and also in some criminal investigations involving tags we needed to identify or associate with a particular person or vehicle,” Smith said.

But according to the ACLU, the arrests aren’t the problem — everything else is.

By storing so many files showing the tags, time and location of law-abiding citizens, law enforcement agencies are setting the stage for large scale invasions of privacy, the group said. Its report cited data from the Minnesota State Patrol: Of nearly 1.7 million plates scanned between 2009 and 2011, only 852 citations were issued and 131 arrests made.

“The above data provide a striking illustration of the wide dragnet that license plate readers often cast,” the report said. “Because they snap pictures of every passing vehicle, they generate millions of data points on the movements of individuals whom no one suspects of violating any law.”

The ACLU asked that “data about innocent people” not be stored “for any lengthy period.”

Comments

Matthew 1 year, 1 month ago

It's only a matter of time.

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Duckula 1 year, 1 month ago

Why do you need to keep MY information for 5 years? Delete it daily. You have no reason to track my movements if i have violated no laws.

Stop violating the Constitution.

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BufordGuy 1 year, 1 month ago

So am I to believe that someone, or some future administration, whether on the local, state, or national level comes to power with bad intentions, they will never use this information to track those they feel threatened by? Bull Crap!!

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Oliver 1 year, 1 month ago

This is also my concern with the LPRs. What checks and balances are in place to make sure that the collected data is only used in a legal and constitutional manner? I might "trust" the people collecting the data today, but I would sleep better at night if I knew that controls were in place to make sure that the data could never be abused.

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pcjohn 1 year, 1 month ago

It is unreasonable to expect "checks and balances" on police powers. Cops view themselves as above the laws that they use to govern our behavior and their use of LPRs will result in misuse since the misuser will be "tried" by his buddies and exonerated immediately. What law is in place to stop a cop from tracking his wife, girlfriend or a personal enemy? None at all! Big Brother has not only arrived but he sits next to you while you're driving.

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notblind 1 year, 1 month ago

The whole judicial system is broken. Prison is just another entitlement program. 3 hots and a cot. Have them start busting rocks or picking crops or other harsh labor and they would start to think twice about a life of crime. Then we wouldn't need all this surveillance.......Of course, the gooberment want's all the surveillance they can get so the more criminals they put out on the street the more surveillance they can thereby justify............. Same with out messed up immigration system. Allow in large numbers of people that are potentially inimical to the beliefs of the majority of Americans and voila - need more surveillance...... This isn't happening by happenstance........

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Veryconcernedcitizen 1 year, 1 month ago

OK, lets look at this from a strictly legal point of view. Police technology is recording your license plate information. The license plate information is in plain view for all the public to see (not just the cops). You as a motorist have no expectation of privacy for your license plate when traveling on public roads. The location your license plate was recorded at is also being documented. I don't see an valid argument (legal) against using these readers. Driving is not a right protected by the Constitution though many people think it is. The issue boils down to search and seizure under the 4th Amend. Again, public place = no expectation of privacy for your plainly visible plate. Sorry conspiracy theory nutjobs!

Now lets look at it from a ethical point of view. Is there any evidence that any police agency has used this technology to harass any innocent citizens? I have not seen any evidence presented in any of the dozens of articles I have read about this. The ACLU has not presented any evidence. Trying to outlaw something because it "could" lead to abuse is crazy. Why don't we outlaw Snicker's because they could lead to obesity? Everything I have read suggests the cops are using these things for legitimate purposes and they ARE WORKING. To think the police would want to or even have the time to track non-law breaking citizens movements is a paranoid fantasy. You people are not that important. The only folks who feel that strongly against this is the ACLU and criminals.

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Karl 1 year, 1 month ago

You proffer some thought-provoking comments, thanks.

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kevin 1 year, 1 month ago

Evidence has not shown its ugly head because the police are covering anything up that might surface. You don't think for a second that any cop is going to spill the beans? Idle minds find bad things to do and there are plenty of those minds in government.

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Oliver 1 year, 1 month ago

paranoid fantasy????? It's time to take off the rose-colored glasses and throw them away along with your straw-man arguments about Snickers bars. You need look no further than recent headlines to see how government further and further encroaches upon your freedoms.

Did the IRS unfairly target tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status??? Did the IRS unfairly audit tea party contributors???
Did the NSA expand the collection of phone records from the original approved international calls to all domestic and international calls???

These are not some paranoid fantasy, these are very real examples of an over-zealous government over-stepping their boundaries.

I am neither a criminal nor do I belong to the ACLU - but I am a very concerned citizen that this program, while it might start out innocently enough, will be expanded and twisted in such a way that it will further erode our constitutional rights. I want to know what checks and balances are in place in order to make sure that today's law enforcement agencies, and those in the future as well, have clearly defined rules on when they can and cannot use that data.

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kevin 1 year, 1 month ago

All the so-called "policies" that protect us will go by the wayside. Policies were made to be broken. Governments do it all the time. Who is checking to see that the policies are not broken? Answer: no one. This new culture of "big brother" watching over us started with the Feds and has expanded to every nook and cranny . It should all be declared unconstitutional. Let big brother find other ways to find their most wanted and not take away our constitutional rights under this disguise.

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Why_not 1 year, 1 month ago

If one viewing my license plate is a violation of the Constitution, then I should be able to hide it from anyone's eyes. The way I view it, if you have nothing to hide and have done nothing illegal, you have no reason to fear who sees your plate. It's visible on your car for a reason.

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Oliver 1 year, 1 month ago

I guess you choose to ignore all the previous examples of government officials illegally using and abusing their offices to expand their power and reduce our freedoms. I wish I could trust them, but I'm wise enough to know that all systems of government need checks and balances. This one is no different.

The concern isn't that the license plates are read. A police officer sitting in his car behind me can do that just as well as an LPR. The concern is when and how all that data is used.

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Why_not 1 year, 1 month ago

Again, like I said previously....if an individual has done nothing wrong, then there is nothing to fear. Personally, this issue is way down on my priority list.

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Veryconcernedcitizen 1 year, 1 month ago

As a citizen I can go around and write down your tag number and the location where I saw it. Then I can put the information into a computer database. I have done nothing illegal. Someone else hit on this, if you don't break the law the police will have no reason to look your tag up. Why_not is correct. We have far more pressing issues.

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jack 1 year, 1 month ago

First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Catholic.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemoller

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Oliver 1 year, 1 month ago

Don't worry jack, I'm told we have more pressing issues.

Can you give me your phone number so I can call you and we can discuss this issue? Oh wait, I'll just ask the NSA for your number and maybe while I'm chatting with them, I'll also ask them to whom else you have been talking. I know you haven't done anything wrong, but I'm glad to know they have all that information about you.

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notblind 1 year, 1 month ago

There's also plenty of stories of individual cops and groups of cops gone bad and with such a database at their disposal they could cause a lot of grief for someone that just happened to witness something the crooked cops didn't want witnessed.

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CD 1 year, 1 month ago

It seems to me the whole debate centers on ethics, at least to a large degree. In Gwinnett, there does appear to be an issue with ethics. 5 years is on the high side of retention--a fact. Gwinnett is challenged both ethically and morally--a fact. Should the two be linked? For the voter to decide.

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FRegistryTerrorists 1 year ago

Of course, the nanny big government has got to say "sex offenders". That is their end-all-be-all to allow any civil violations to progress. Because EVERYONE is all for not "letting" "sex offenders" have any rights.

So why exactly is the criminal Gwinnett County Police Department (GCPD) reading the license plates of "sex offenders"? They will lie that they are doing to "protect" people. But of course the reason is so that they can harass people.

My family has been listed on the nanny big government Sex Offender Registries for a long time. I can tell you for certain that they only thing they are for and the only thing that they do is allow the families listed on them to be harassed. All the vehicles that my children drive are Registered with the scumbag criminal regimes and they get stopped on a regular basis just for fun.

Criminal law enforcement people have even come by home asking me why one of my vehicles was parked at such and such a place at one time. Of course, I simply tell them to go F themselves. Because even though I had a lot of respect for our governments and law enforcement before my family was listed on a Sex Offender Registry, I have less than none now. They deserve all the disrespect that a person can muster.

So what are those GCPD criminals doing with their License Plate Readers? When they discover that one of my vehicles is in a county park, are they getting out of their cars and going for a walk around a few hundred acres looking for people who might be enjoying a park (Don't be so naive to believe them that they recognize the people who are on their lists)? Or have they tired of that nonsense yet? My children drive to parks a lot. I will tell you what GCPD is not doing while they are harassing my family, especially when they are trying to do it at my home - they are not preventing crime. They are too busy goofing off.

I know everyone loves the Sex Offender witch hunt, but few people know exactly what it is getting you. It has been completely counterproductive and that is never going to change. I spend time around children ALL the time precisely because of the immoral, un-American Sex Offender Registries exist. It's the right thing to do.

If the Sex Offender Registries were really for "public safety" and all those other lies, why have the terrorists who support them failed so miserably at getting the rest of the Registries created? What are their excuses?

One last thing - the way to keep nanny big government from continuing to get bigger and bigger and "protect" us more and more is to take away their money. Vote to shrink criminal, big government. It's nothing but a jobs program. Their drug business does seem to be pulling in pretty good profits but there is only so much money they can make like that.

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