States Eye License Plate Cameras as Source of Cash

 
license plate cameras

When Martin O'Malley became Maryland's governor in 2007, one of his first moves was to double the number of cameras used to spy on cars. The cameras, stationed at toll booths and parking garages and mounted on police cars, scan license plate numbers and instantly match them with a database for tracking stolen cars.

The sort of "Big Brother" criticism one might expect of a program like this never materialized in a substantial way. There's a good reason for that: The rate of vehicle theft in Maryland has plummeted to its lowest level since the state began collecting data in 1975. Last week, O'Malley pledged to add 100 more license-plate cameras to Maryland's arsenal.

A very different story is unfolding in neighboring Pennsylvania. When Governor Ed Rendell recently proposed using the tag readers to crack down on a separate problem — uninsured and unregistered drivers — the plan sparked waves of protest. A key difference is that Rendell has been playing up the idea of using the cameras to raise revenue from fining drivers. Rendell says Pennsylvania stands to pocket $115 million a year.

The idea of using tag readers explicitly as a revenue-raising tool seems to have made many Pennsylvanians uncomfortable. The auto insurance industry has come out against the plan, saying the technology is not accurate enough to avoid levying erroneous fines on their insurance-carrying customers. Meanwhile, the civil liberties argument has come up much more in Pennsylvania than it ever did in Maryland. "It is very Orwellian to think about putting cameras up all over the state and have them randomly or not randomly catch license-plate photos," says state Senator John Gordnor, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee.

License-plate readers have been used in Europe since the 1990s, but the technology, officially known as "automatic number plate recognition," didn't catch on in the United States until the early 2000s. They first came to toll booths, as a tool to catch toll cheats. Later, they became linked in to law enforcement databases. Local police departments began attaching the cameras to squad cars, giving officers the ability to scan thousands of license plates while in motion. Like cameras that catch drivers when they run red lights or drive over the speed limit, license-plate readers give law enforcement extra eyes on the street — and powerful eyes at that.

States are playing an important part in rolling out the technology. For one thing, they've been helping police departments pay for the cameras, which can cost as much as $20,000 per unit. Michigan and New York dipped into federal stimulus money to pay for the equipment last year. In Maryland, O'Malley is using federal grants and some existing state funds to pay the $2 million cost of his tag reader expansion.

States also have begun writing the rules for the readers' use. For example, in Maine last fall, when the South Portland Police Department began using license-plate readers, privacy advocates grew wary of how quickly the cameras were able to capture and record license plate numbers. This year, the Maine Civil Liberties Union asked the state Legislature to completely ban the cameras. Lawmakers didn't do that, but they did limit the timeframe that license plate readers store information on databases to 21 days. The law also requires that the information can be used only for law enforcement purposes.

Zachery Heiten, a legal director with the MCLU, hopes the restrictions will be enough to protect the public's privacy while the technology moves forward. "Having surveillance technology makes people feel uncomfortable," he says. "It's wrong to treat everybody as if they're a criminal suspect."

Not everybody is as wary of the cameras as Heiten is. Justin McNaull, a spokesman with AAA, says it really depends on what the readers are being used for. "From a philosophical standpoint, technology is neither good nor bad," McNaull says, adding that using readers to recover stolen cars is a "great use" of them. It's when cameras are marketed as revenue enhancers that McNaull gets suspicious. "That's not the reason you do law enforcement," he says.

Profit motive

Much of the marketing McNaull complains about comes from InsureNet Inc., one of the leading American companies pushing for license-plate readers. Actually, the idea that cameras can raise revenue for states is one of InsureNet's business models.

Recently, InsureNet bid on a proposal in Oklahoma, which like Pennsylvania, wants to use cameras to fine uninsured drivers. InsureNet proposed to spend $37 million in private money setting up the infrastructure, in exchange for the right to collect 30 percent of the fines. Oklahoma expects to earn $50 million per year from the program. (Update: Oklahoma has put this program on hold .)

"It's a tremendous opportunity for them," says Jonathan Miller, president of InsureNet. "We have to pay the state no matter what. Its government can't afford to do these things." Miller says his company is speaking with seven states about adopting similar programs.

Miller dismisses the privacy concerns surrounding cameras, noting that the technology identifies and tracks only license plates — not actual people. "It only verifies a hunk of metal," he says. What's more, the system won't send out citations automatically. When a license plate fails to turn up in one of the insurance company databases the system uses, police still will have to verify the absence before issuing a notification. "This is not something done by a robot," Miller says. "An officer has to physically look at it."

But Jeramy Rich, an attorney with the American Insurance Association, says the Oklahoma proposal is likely to result in a lot of driver frustration. The insurance databases the system would use aren't updated in real-time, so drivers who have recently paid their insurance bills may get wrongfully caught in the surveillance net. Another likely source of false positives is fleet vehicles, whose insurance policies aren't likely to show up in the system.

Miller responds that any drivers who feel they have been wrongfully billed would have 45 days to straighten out the situation, and that a help desk would operate 24 hours a day. But Rich is skeptical. "We're not aware of anywhere in the country that a system like this is up and running and successful," he says.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Oklahoma has put its plans to use license plate readers to identify uninsured drivers on hold. It also has been corrected to clarify that InsureNet does not manufacture license plate readers. The company creates insurance databases.

 
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