Ohio ACLU Has Concerns about Plate Readers

Aug. 11, 2012
Ohio Homeland Security and its anti-terrorism "fusion center," unlike in some states, does not receive information from the license-plate readers used by police across the state.

Aug. 11--When you drive into the underground parking garage at the Statehouse, the State Highway Patrol has your number -- your license-plate number, that is.

If automatic license-plate readers indicate that you might be driving a stolen car or subject to an arrest warrant, you can expect a quick visit from a trooper.

The use of imaging technology to check license-plate numbers quickly for wanted vehicles and fugitives has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to file public-records requests nationwide.

The ACLU, its Ohio chapter included, worries about privacy amid an expansion of government surveillance and wonders what becomes of the information gathered on law-abiding citizens. Are their movements being tracked?

Gary Daniels, a Columbus resident and associate director of the ACLU of Ohio, asks: "How is this data being collected, how is it being used, how long is it kept and how is it shared?"

The patrol and Columbus and Cleveland police were among the agencies receiving records requests from the ACLU.

The Franklin County sheriff's office gathers thousands of license-plate numbers from area law-enforcement agencies, including Columbus police, and stores them for 90 days before they are purged, as an aid in solving crimes.

Tom Welch, a systems administrator for the sheriff's office, said police agencies that participate in the program can search the database, which is subject to the same security and penalties for misuse as other police computer systems. The information is not sent to any other agency, he said.

Patrol officials say neither Ohioans nor the ACLU needs to worry about the thousands of plate numbers its automated readers gather each week.

Under patrol policy, all of the data gathered by the computerized systems, except those that result in criminal arrests, are immediately deleted, said Lt. Anne Ralston, patrol spokeswoman.

Ohio Homeland Security and its anti-terrorism "fusion center," unlike in some states, does not receive information from the license-plate readers used by police across the state, Ralston said.

Maryland police, for example, send license-plate information to the state's "fusion center," where the data can be saved up to a year to help solve crimes.

In addition to three at the Capitol Square parking garage, the patrol has 11 fixed readers scanning the plates of all cars entering the state on the Ohio Turnpike, and nine mobile readers used by troopers on criminal patrol, she said.

When a flagged license plate is recorded, the systems notify dispatchers or troopers, who then check police computer systems to confirm the vehicle or its registered owner is wanted before making a stop, Ralston said.

In a memo this year, Col. John Born, the patrol's superintendent, wrote that the license-plate readers had resulted in 221 criminal cases since 2004, including the recovery of 141 stolen vehicles and 226 arrests.

The highway patrol bought the fixed units (about $14,800 each) and mobile readers (about $17,300 each) with grant money, Ralston said.

Columbus police use about 15 license-plate readers, while the Franklin County sheriff's office has about 25. One patrol car can capture up to 2,500 plate numbers every 24 hours.

Cmdr. Bob Meader of the Columbus police property-crimes bureau said the readers have been useful in catching car thieves and solving other crimes.

The ACLU of Ohio's Daniels said the records requests will help determine whether the license-plate information is subject to abuse. "We don't necessarily object to what some police agencies do. But, at a minimum, there's a need for a state law setting standards and limits."

[email protected]


Copyright 2012 - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Officer, create an account today!