8News Investigates: Mobile Plate Hunters

LOUISA COUNTY, Va. (WRIC)—An increasing number of police forces throughout Central Virginia are using infrared cameras mounted on their patrol cars to snap photos of every license plate they pass. But many fear the revolutionary crime-fighting tool is a massive invasion of privacy.

“I don't have to take my eyes off the road,” said Sergeant David Harper of the Louisa County Sheriff's Office. “The beeping sound you hear that tells you it's working properly; it's taking photographs.”

The gadget is called a mobile plate hunter, and it can take hundreds of snapshots per minute.

“It's automated,” Harper said. “It does virtually all the work for you.”

Pictures taken by mobile plate hunters are sent to the patrol car computer terminal, which is synched with the National and Virginia Crime Information Centers, allowing the plate hunter to keep an electronic eye out for stolen cars.

“I wouldn't even have to look for it myself; this machine right here will do it for me,” Harper said.

Mobile plate hunters also help cops spot vehicles tied to AMBER Alerts.

“If it were an AMBER Alert for instance, it would sound this alarm, ‘Wanted or missing person,'” Harper said.  

Officers claim the device also increases their safety, as it can alert them when they approach criminals on the run.

“This would tell you they're a violent gang member before you even get out of the car, if that vehicle was entered,” said Harper, who has been using a mobile plate hunter for nearly two years. “It's extremely valuable.”

During a routine patrol, Harper once used the device to locate a stolen car and arrest two thieves.

“It was essentially all because of the license plate reader,” he said. “I think it's a great tool for law enforcement to use.”

While officers swear by them, mobile plate hunters can also be used by detectives to track the whereabouts of suspected criminals—but only if the time-, date- and GPS-stamped photos collected by the cameras are saved. Some privacy rights groups say this is a problem.

“Police shouldn't be able to just use these new technologies to gather information about all of us and put it in some database and use it sometime in the future,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

A recent report by the ACLU warned that mobile plate hunters collect data on tens of millions of Americans who have committed no wrongdoing, thereby opening the door for privacy abuses.

“That passive collection of data on all of us all the time without a warrant or specific information about looking for a particular person or particular criminal is what concerns us,” Gastañaga said, adding that this is done in Virginia. “The state police asked the [attorney general] specifically, ‘Can we do it?' Because obviously, they wanted to.”

Virginia State Police currently have 41 mobile plate hunters. In a written statement, they told 8News Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe that they got an opinion from Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli to ensure their “data collection and storage methods are in compliance with Virginia's Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act.”

The Louisa County Sheriff's Office says it takes privacy very seriously and doesn't save the photos taken by mobile plate hunters.

“This information is not stored at any type of server at the sheriff's office,” Harper said.

But whether it's Internet surveillance, drones in the sky or license plate scanners on the ground, the ACLU and others warn: Big Brother is watching.

“Just because technology has changed doesn't mean the rules of the game should change,” Gastañaga said.

The ACLU report—based on a survey of hundreds of police departments in the United States—says almost three quarters of police agencies reported using license plate readers and 85 percent planned to increase their use. The Richmond Police Department does not use mobile plate hunters at all.


Copyright 2013 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond

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