Troopers add license plate readers to surveillance equipment on Highway 421

Troopers add license plate readers to surveillance equipment on Highway 421
Drivers passing through the lower Cape Fear region on Highway 421 may have noticed some interesting items in their recent travels. (Source: WECT)

SOUTHEASTERN, NC (WECT) - Drivers passing through the lower Cape Fear region on Highway 421 may have noticed some interesting items in their recent travels.

Near Point Harbor Road, along Hwy. 421, troopers with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol have setup multiple devices they say are used to monitor the operation of commercial vehicles. These items include traffic cameras, weigh-in motion detectors (VWIM), and automated license plate readers (ALPR).

The license plate readers are new and have only become operational in the past few weeks, according to Trooper J.L. Hager with NCSHP.

"The ALPR's are actually linked in with a database that basically alerts us to companies and/or vehicles that have a poor safety rating," Hager explained.

According to Hager, the cameras take a snapshot of the commercial trucks and the VWIM devices measure the weight of those vehicles. Hager said that information and an image of the license plate is sent to a database that is accessible from his computer. The program then alerts troopers if a vehicle is too heavy or is operating while "out of service."

"When we receive an alert on the system, typically what we do is take a look at the vehicle itself and see if by our standards it needs to be stopped," Hager said.

The trooper explained that the 421 location was the only spot in Southeastern, North Carolina where the devices are permanently mounted. Additionally, Hager said the devices only monitor commercial vehicles, not civilian cars or trucks.

"It's only designed and it's only set-up to read front-facing license plates and only on vehicles that are large commercial vehicles," Hager explained.

He said there are a range of penalties that companies can be faced with if they are caught driving a vehicle that is too heavy or technically labeled "out of service."

"Typically in North Carolina, you are assessed a civil fine. You may also be assessed criminal charges depending on the situation and depending on what the violation is," Hager said.

He said the technology has become useful for the troopers and has helped them police the busy 421 area.

"The big benefit for us is it weeds out the trucks or companies that we have problems with and it allows the trucks or companies that we don't have problems with to continue down the road," he said.

Wilmington attorney and former State Senator Thom Goolsby has questioned the use of surveillance equipment in the past. The attorney said, however, he finds no problem with the trooper's use of these items as long as his constitutional rights are not violated.

"It's their job to surveil our highways, to track certain things, and they're sure able to do that. How long should they keep those records? Who should they share those records with? Who should have a right to those? Those are the things we have to address," Goolsby said.

Hager acknowledged the privacy concerns, but assured the public there is nothing to worry about with the surveillance devices.

Sgt. Nance with NCSHP confirmed the data collected by the devices is kept for a "short period of time," but not permanently.

"I think all Americans should always be concerned about their privacy and their rights, and I think that's what this country is founded on. But at the same time you have to realize sometimes technology is used for good purposes," Hager said.

The law enforcement professional of nearly 30 years said  he predicts technology will only become more prevalent in policing within the coming years. He added that the core goal of the troopers remains the same.

"We're here to protect property and lives. It is all about safety. It's about maintaining our infrastructure. It's about the taxpayer not having to dish out extra money each year to re-pave and redo roads and bridges," stated Hager.

Officials with the Wilmington Police Department confirmed they too have purchased ALPR technology in the past, but claimed their devices are no longer in use.

Officials with the Wrightsville Beach Police Department have said they also have the equipment, but did not disclose how they have used it.

Copyright 2015 WECT. All rights reserved.