Beaufort News

Sheriff's Office license-plate readers could raise privacy concerns

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The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office intends to purchase new technology that can provide law enforcement with "a wealth of information," but which has stirred privacy concerns in some areas where it's been used.

A federal grant would allow the Sheriff's Office to purchase two mobile automatic license-plate readers for countywide use. Capt. Toby McSwain made a short presentation Monday about the devices to the Hilton Head Island Public Safety Committee.

The cameras are mounted on telephone poles, bridges, traffic signal arms or patrol cars and snap a photograph of the plates of every passing vehicle -- capturing information on up to thousands of cars per minute.

The devices also record the GPS location, time and date when the photograph was snapped, and often capture the vehicle, as well -- not just the plate number, McSwain said.

That information can be checked against databases selected by the individual agency for things like arrest warrants, sex-offender registries, missing persons, stolen vehicles or child-abduction alerts.

The device notifies a dispatcher and sends the information via email or text message to assigned deputies whenever a match, or "hit," appears. Officers can then pull the names and addresses of the owners through a Department of Motor Vehicle's database, McSwain said.

Law enforcement agencies that use the devices see the best results with both mobile and stationary units positioned at high-traffic intersections, he said.

A two-camera system mounted on a patrol car costs about $15,000. A stationary camera costs about $100,000. McSwain suggested purchase of a stationary camera for Hilton Head to be followed by a mobile one, should the town be interested or additional grants become available.

The new devices would come with personnel costs, as well.

"It's definitely going to generate more work to monitor the information coming in ... and would need someone out there to be able to respond to 'hits,' " McSwain said. "It's almost generating a call for service, because the camera's capturing something and sending up a flag saying this person is a possible wanted subject."

The town has spent more than $500,000 since 2007 to install more than 200 security cameras in its parks, which have led to numerous robbery and burglary arrests, according to the sheriff.

The readers would also be invaluable, McSwain said.

For example, a camera stationed at the intersection of Squire Pope Road and William Hilton Parkway could record all vehicles coming on and off the island, including stolen cars and those involved in drunken-driving accidents, McSwain said. Data collected could also provide investigative leads, should the devices scan plates near a crime scene, allowing deputies to locate potential suspects, witnesses and victims by identifying vehicles in the vicinity, he said.

"Having that capability gives us a wealth of information investigators can use for finding wanted subjects and working drug cases" looking for known dealers, McSwain said.

Some groups worry the devices will become a warrantless tracking tool -- another among a growing list of technologies cataloging everyday activities, such as cellphone location data, online searches, credit card purchases and social network usage.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed requests this summer in the District of Columbia and in 38 states -- including in South Carolina -- for information on how police departments and state law enforcement use the devices. It argues that some police departments could store the license plate data of "non-hits" and share it with other officials.

The ACLU recognizes the devices can help police, but only "when used in a narrow and carefully regulated way" to avoid "retroactive surveillance of millions of people."

Location information can reveal sensitive details of people's lives and could raise constitutional concerns, the International Association of Chiefs of Police has warned.

For example, the devices could record plates parked at public locations that might be considered private, such as doctor's offices, churches, clinics or addiction-counseling meetings.

The association urged its members to establish criteria for granting access to the information and designate it only for official law-enforcement use.

McSwain told the town's Public Safety Committee that the Sheriff's Office would follow strict federal guidelines to ensure the information is not abused or accessible to the public.

By comparison, the U.S. Supreme Court has said law enforcement must get a court order to install a GPS tracker on a person's car or to track a location via cellphone, because tracking involves a search of private property and because the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Plate readers, however, are placed in public view.

"You have no expectation to privacy with your license plate when displayed to the public," 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said, and the system would be no different than security cameras already capturing license plates at town parks, the Cross Island toll booth or Savannah Hilton Head International Airport.

Committee chairman Bill Harkins believes the readers are worth the investment to keep Hilton Head a safe, attractive place for residents, tourists, businesses and prospective home buyers.

"I think we as a community should always be looking at new ways to improve the safety of our community," Harkins said. "If technology -- in a non-intrusive way (and) protecting the privacy of our citizens -- can be used to detect the presence of undesirable people in the community that often have a record of crime, then we should take a hard look at introducing that."

Details of the grant and the mobile devices' use were not immediately available Monday.

Related content

  1. International Association of Chiefs of Police: Privacy impact assessment report for the utilization of license plate readers
  2. American Civil Liberties Union
  3. Sheriff's office credits Hilton Head cameras for convictions; wants more: Nov. 1, 2010
  4. The Wall Street Journal New Tracking Frontier: Your License Plates: Sept. 28, 2012