Police, lawmaker sound off on license plate scanners - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

UPDATE: License plate scanner legislation dies

The original plan was to install the fixed scanner on existing DOT infrastructure near the bridge, allowing them to read the estimated 1.6 million plates that cross over the bridge every year. (Source: WECT) The original plan was to install the fixed scanner on existing DOT infrastructure near the bridge, allowing them to read the estimated 1.6 million plates that cross over the bridge every year. (Source: WECT)

According to State Senator Thom Goolsby, a bill amendment that would allow license plate scanners on state-owned roads is dead.

In a text message Wednesday, Goolsby said, "For all intents and purposes, it is dead," in reference to the legislation.

Goolsby said the bill was discussed Wednesday morning in the Senate Rules Committee, but appeared to be going nowhere. 

"This is one small victory against the surveillance state. I am glad I could voice my opinion and help stop this bill," Goolsby said in a text message.

The proposed amendment would allow law enforcement departments to use license plate scanners on state-owned roads like I-40 or Highway 17; however, Goolsby thinks the scanners will treat everyone on the road like a criminal.

State legislators withdrew HB 348 Monday from the legislative calendar. The legislation was referred back to a senate committee.

The Wilmington City Council accepted a grant in October of 2008 for $44,000 that according to City Manager Sterling Cheatham, would be to purchase software for the Wilmington Police Department.

In reality, it wasn't just software that was purchased, but a sophisticated piece of technology knows as an automated license plate recognition system or ALPR.

ALPR are mounted to police vehicles and automatically scan every license plate it sees. A computer reads the plate and sends the information to a national database that can cross reference them for outstanding warrants and other flags, alerting officers within seconds.

According to manufacture specifications, the ALPR has the ability to read 1,800 plates per minute, and can read plates at speeds up to 140 mph. The technology also allows officers to drive through parking lots, scanning every plate they come across.

When a plate is scanned, officers have access to the date, time, photo, and GPS location of every plate scanned whether you are a criminal or just driving around town.

In promotional material sent to perspective clients, the manufacture says their ALPRs collect "vast" amounts of data and their companion software collects, analyzes, and manages data automatically.

Deputy Chief Mitch Cunningham with the Wilmington Police Department said the WPD currently does not use the equipment, but has tested a unit in the past.

He said the WPD does plan to use the equipment again in the future because it can be very valuable for finding suspects. He said the department will regulate how they use the technology when they obtain it.

"No matter what crime-fighting tool we're using, we institute policies that govern how we use them and put limitations and restrictions on how the data's used. That's just sound practice," Cunningham explained.

Cunningham said he does understand the privacy concerns of some citizens.

"We're in a world of really effective technology, but sometimes the technology appears to be invasive and people are rightly concerned is there a point where this technology is becoming too invasive," he added.

The Wilmington Police Department is not the only agency using this technology in our area. Wrightsville Beach Board of Alderman voted in 2012 to purchase one mobile and one stationary ALPR for their police department.

According to documents provided to Alderman, funding for the project was secured through a grant from Homeland Security and was specifically designed to aid in port security.

Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House said in 2013 that he had seen a dramatic decrease in crime and attributes that to ALPR and other technology upgrades for it.

In a phone conversation Monday, House said the WBPD now has three separate surveillance units. Two are mobile, and one is stationary. House said the units aren't used frequently, but do help deter crime.

The WPD and WBPD have tried to upgrade the technology over the years by adding a fixed reader that would allow them to scan every plate that passes by.

In Wrightsville Beach the department pointed out that the bridge allows them a unique and efficient opportunity to deploy the equipment since there is only one way in and out of the Island.

The original plan was to install the fixed scanner on existing DOT infrastructure near the bridge, allowing them to read the estimated 1.6 million plates that cross over the bridge every year. In the end, the town was not able to work out the logistics with the DOT and only use the mobile units.

The City of Wilmington ran into similar issues when they attempted to install the fixed units. In 2011 Council accepted a Port Security Grant in the amount of $214,000 to purchase additional ALPR technology.

The department had planned to install the equipment in DOT right of ways at heavily used entrance points around the city, but had to vote in 2013 to scrap the project because the grant could not be used as envisioned.

A letter sent from the NCDOT outlined some of the concerns with the project, including privacy concerns. NCDOT engineer Allen Pope wrote in a letter to WPD Captain Donnie Williams that the DOT had privacy concerns regarding legal issues associated with capturing data of this nature on all vehicles passing by such equipment.

Pope went on to say that there was a real possibility that the Department could face legal challenges for allowing the installation of non-traffic related equipment on DOT property. 

State Senator Thom Goolsby (R) said that he is very much opposed to the use of license plate surveillance on the general public.

Goolsby said he has already spoken out against the HB 348 legislation once during the short session. He said he will voice his opinion again on Monday night when the legislators convene.

"[If] somebody's broken the law, law enforcement can use reasonable techniques to find them. But they don't need to scan every one of us and treat all of us like criminals," Goolsby explained.

Goolsby said he has no problem with police using this technology as long as they have warrants and they don't use it to monitor the general public.

"We don't deserve to be treated that way. Law-abiding citizens should have a right to privacy," Goolsby continued.

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