NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is among the dozens of affiliates voicing concern over the use of Automated License Plate Recognition systems by law enforcement and seeking more information from local and state governments.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of ACLU-VT, said the Vermont affiliate has received some information from the state of Vermont on the use of ALPRs through freedom of information requests. What has been learned so far is causing concern, he said.
"We have actually been surprised by what we're slowly finding out," he said. "What we didn't know was how there was a plan for a centralized state database, and that indeed, that plan had already been implemented."
ALPRs allow license plates to be read by cameras mounted on police cruisers. The plate information is then relayed through a database and an officer is alerted if a vehicle is not registered, or if the registered owner has outstanding warrants, a suspended license or other issues that would draw the interest of law enforcement.
Gilbert said ACLU affiliates around the country are now trying to determine what information is being collected and stored by law enforcement.
"Our concerns are: Who has access to the data, how is the data being used and how long is the data available?" Gilbert said. "After we get those answers it will be much easier to see if civil liberties are being violated."
Plate information collected by ALPRs in Vermont is already being uploaded into a centralized state database, according to Gilbert. He said information received from records requests shows that the state is saving data, even data collected from non-suspicious vehicles, for up to four years.
"The other really big thing that we didn't know was that the state had already decided how long the data would be retained. We sort of thought they would say that the data was going to be retained for 10 days or 30 days at the most," he said. "This is much more toward building a surveillance network around the state than we had realized."
ACLU affiliates from 34 states have made similar records requests. The information gleaned from the responses will be shared, Gilbert said.
"We wanted to find out on a national level how far, how pervasive, the growth of a system using ALPRs was. Most of us are still waiting for some of the requests to be responded to, despite the fact that it's been several weeks," he said. "My guess is that based on what we're finding out, the general conclusion is going to be that, largely because of money that's flowed from the fed government, and largely from Homeland Security grants, I think we're going to find that ALPR systems have become widespread."
Civil liberties could be at risk because information is being stored for so long.
"The civil rights aspect fits in because the data is going to be retained for a period much longer than you would otherwise obtain information when you suspect a crime has been committed," Gilbert said. "There's no reason that a record of someone's license plate be retained if a person is not being investigated for a crime."
The ALPRs essentially allow police to track vehicles by recording where and when they are captured by the cameras, Gilbert said. "What you're really doing is building a surveillance society," he said. "That's really pretty un-American. That's not how we think of freedom in this county."
Courts have ruled that surveillance cameras are legal because they do nothing more than what an officer could observe. But, equating an ALPR to a law enforcement officer writing down a license plate is "pretty much a stretch," Gilbert said.
"I'm sure you will be seeing lawsuits about this eventually. Whether they'll be successful or not is a very good question," he said.
Both the Bennington Police Department and the Bennington County Sheriff's Department have at least one ALPR each. Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt said his deputies have found the system to be useful in finding suspended drivers and unregistered vehicles. He said he is unsure how the data is stored.
"All of that information is stored by the Department of Public Safety. For how long, or what they do with it, I have no idea," Schmidt said.
Schmidt said the data system can be queried for information about specific plates or vehicles. He said his agency has made no such requests, though, and has had no reason to. But he said if a bank robbery occurred in Bennington, the database could provide information about where a suspect vehicle is often seen.
"Whether or not you can plot someone's course throughout the state with them, I don't know why anyone would need to do that, but obviously we have the capabilities," he said.
Schmidt said the ALPR installed on one of his cruisers was obtained through a federal grant. The out-of-pocket cost for such a system would be about $22,000, he said.
Schmidt said license plates are required on vehicles so that vehicles can be tracked.
"That's kind of the wave of the future and the push. I can understand people's concern about how much data is being stored and that kind of thing. But I think license plates are intended to be read. That's why we can read them. That's what they're there for," he said.
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said he has received nothing but positive feedback from area residents. In fact, he is hoping the department will add a second ALPR in September.
"The bottom line is, we're using good common sense and judgment with it," he said. "To search out an individual just to see if an individual was in Bennington, for no reason, that would not be a justified use for that data. It's not anything that we're using to track people. We're using it to help solve crimes."
Doucette said new technology and tools used by law enforcement often attracts attention when first introduced.
"We need tools like this to help us solve crimes and develop information. Whenever we get a tool or something useful, someone has a problem with it. I don't think we're violating anyone's rights or privacy by reading a license plate," he said.