License plate readers in wide use in Vermont

Editor’s note: This piece is by Mark Davis, a staff writer at the Valley News, where it was first published.

Photo by Anne Galloway

Photo by Anne Galloway

More than 30 law enforcement agencies in Vermont have obtained automatic license plate readers that are capable of scanning thousands of automobiles an hour and store the information in a database for four years, according to records recently obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Citing a concern that police may be gathering personal information with little oversight, the Vermont chapter of the ACLU earlier this year filed a request for records that would shed light on use of the readers, which are essentially cameras that record the time and location of plates that come into their field of view.

Eight sheriff’s departments, the Vermont State Police and the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles police have been awarded grants to buy the readers since 2008, according to hundreds of pages of police records obtained by the ACLU.

In the Upper Valley, police in Hartford and Springfield, Vt., and sheriff’s departments in Windsor and Orange counties have the scanners, according to the records.

Vermont ACLU staff attorney Dan Barrett said his organization is concerned that the information collected is stored for four years and may mount a legal challenge to that policy.

More than 30 state ACLU affiliates across the country filed similar requests for records, Barrett said. In states where the records have been released, no other law enforcement agency keeps the data for four years. The Boston Police Department, for example, keeps data from readers for 90 days.

“We think that’s pretty draconian,” Barrett said of the Vermont standard. “We always say that, where the government can, it will. They need to step back and say, ‘Do we really need to hang onto this for four years? They are really widespread in Vermont. We need to talk about what are reasonable limits, so we don’t turn it into a permanent surveillance system.”

The data captured by the readers is sent to the Vermont Fusion Center in Williston, which is overseen by the Vermont State Police. The federal government also has access to the data, the ACLU said.

Law enforcement officials have said the plate readers are effective tools for catching criminals who may otherwise evade detection.

Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak said his department’s license plate reader, purchased a year ago, has proven invaluable in both locating criminals and protecting officers. He said officers have pulled over dozens of drivers for outstanding warrants or driving with suspended licenses.

When the reader scans a plate associated with a driver who has warrants or suspensions, it sounds a tone. The readers, Bohnyak said, also alert officers of potentially dangerous drivers, without the officer needing to punch information into a cruiser computer.

“We use it every day, it’s an effective tool,” Bohnyak said. “I think they are pretty awesome.”

Privacy advocates are concerned that police could exploit a trove of information about innocent drivers without warrants. Four years of data they say, could essentially provide a detailed map of where people are doing in any given day, and could be abused.

“What we don’t think should exist is a system in which people are tracked,” Barrett said. “You can put together a pretty effective record of where people are during the day. You start to be able to see things that people don’t readily tell others — trips to counseling, trips to meet intimate others. For four years, they will retain this incredibly detailed record.”

Bohnyak said he was sensitive to those concerns, but noted that officers still use discretion.

A signal from the reader is not enough to justify a stop, Bohnyak said. If the system finds that a passing car is associated with a driver with a suspended license, the police may follow the vehicle, but pull it over only if the driver commits a traffic infraction, Bohnyak said.

“We need to use good sound judgment and discretion,” Bohnyak said. “We want to keep the people’s trust and we don’t want to violate their rights.”

Barrett said the records obtained by the ACLU do not suggest that any law enforcement agency has abused the information collected.

The Hartford Police Department has operated two license plate readers since 2010. Like others in Vermont, the scanners were purchased with federal funds. Most grants are from the Department of Homeland Security.

New Hampshire passed a law that all but forbade law enforcement from using the readers — there are exemptions for monitoring bridges and other infrastructure.

The ACLU says that Maine is the only other state to pass laws restricting use of the plate readers.

Mark Davis can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3304.

Comments

  1. Bruce Post :

    Jeremy Bentham would be ecstatic: We indeed are in the panopticon. Michel Foucault wrote of the panopticon: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”

    I remember, when living in D.C., seeing guys come into church every once in awhile wearing tin foil hats to keep the “invisible rays” from reading their brains. We thought they were crazy. Perhaps they were simply ahead of their time.

    Maybe this is the latest iteration of the mythical Vermont Way; you are either the surveiller or the surveilled. How about a new state motto: “Vermont – We’ve Got Our Eyes on You!” By the way, didn’t Peter Shumlin just walk out of a news conference protesting that he had a right to privacy?

  2. Pete Novick :

    “Still shakin’ the bush boss!”
    (Sound of rifle shot)
    “Still shakin’ the bush boss!”
    (Another rifle shot)

    And that was just from a movie!

    My favorite new highway sign is the big electronic board that flashes this message:

    REPORT SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY

    800 – 555 – 1234

    When did this Sovietization of the United States begin?

    Once time, after passing under one of these signs on the Capital Beltway, I called the number and reported one of my kids who gaffed off his math homework assignment.

    • Tom Karov :

      In the 70s I think they called it “Watergate”

  3. How is this not warrant-less surveillance?

    • Christian Noll :

      That’s exactly what it is Juliet, Warrantless Surveillance.

      Its almost to the point where you don’t want to leave the house any more because of the stress of being followed around by the police.

      This is sadly ironic because from 2008 to 2011 Vermont scored the highest police misconduct rate IN THE NATION per capita of its police officers (NPMSRP). We’re not only the highest, but Vermont is three and a half times the national average in police misconduct.

      Much of this is from Warrantless Surveillance.

      I had to complain several times to the Burlington City Attorney in 2009 about police liturally following me around town. At the same time I informed the City Attorney about police sponsored internet monitoring which I found out about when several neighbors confided in me that they were notified by a Champlain College “professor” about what “types of internet sites” I’ve frequented.

      No joke. No paranoia and no deliruim! Though I wish it were a bad dream, I discovered that it was not.

      It is my sad but firm belief that the police deliberately divulged this information in mine and my mother’s own community for the sole purposes of trying to either humiliate me, or engage in retribution for the publishing of my book.

      Initially, not understanding what had made me the target of police surveillance, I had to take a step back and look at what the police could have possibly been looking for. My conclusion is that they were using tax payers money to fullfil this vendetta they’ve had since my publication to play “pay back.”

      This is the same police department I fulfilled my undergraduate internship with in 1988.

      In Vermont we have license plates which are available to military veterans which display the medal and/or decorations won in “Wars” such as Iraq and Afganistan. Do you think the drivers of those vehicles would get a warning for speeding, or an actual ticket? Do you think that the police will be giving the same level of scrutiny for military license plates as opposed to regular ones?

      If we allow the police to do this, they will. In fact the police are allowed to lie to us about fake reports of other crimes and fake charges to try and get suspects to fess up to other things. Warrantless Surveillance of a Vermont registered vehicles will give the police all kinds of ways to violate your privacy and to spend tax payers money under the gise of “fighting crime.”

      Don’t you just feel so much safer now that we’re providing the police with the tools nessessary to fight crime?

      You are correct though Juliet, it is Warrantless Surveillance.

  4. john burton :

    armed bureaucrats being paid to spy on people with homeland security grants. what would ethan say?

  5. Barry Kade :

    Are these readers mounted on police vehicles or permanent locations? If the later, we have a duty.

  6. Randy Koch :

    Wait a minute, I didn’t know there was a “Fusion Center” in Williston. These Centers have been in the news as a complete boondoggle, costing huge sums producing zero of any value. What is the “Fusion Center” even trying to do? Wouldn’t this be a great assignment for some intrepid reporter? Without knowing more, it seems to me a “Fusion Center” could be a huge step toward a police state where there is always some unit of police or military that 1. is aware of what the unwashed masses are doing and 2. is willing to shoot at them.

    When the as-yet unidentified soldier/cops shot Jimmy Leavitt 19 times in the back during the otherwise peaceful Burlington demonstration, was it from the Williston “Fusion Center” that they learned that he was a leader?

  7. David Cadran :

    I don’t mind the readers so much. I believe they could be helpful in finding criminals. Especially cross border crimes. But storing the data… and for four years! That seems excessive. Boston’s standard seems reasonable.

  8. Homeland Security has turned into another government branch to extinguish the Bill of Rights.

  9. Jan Santor :

    While driving a relative to work (St. Albans to Burlington), about two weeks ago; I was about to pass a vehicle when the license plate caught my eye. It was sporting a molded, clear plastic bubble cover through which the plate number was barely readable, “What new kind of Hell is this”, I rhetorically asked. Then the light bulb in my brain flashed on. A photo blocker!!!! In the days since, we have taken note of the increasing numbers of these on different vehicles, traveling I-89. We have counted over 50 separate vehicles in two weeks time. I did a quick search on the net for “clear License plate covers” and discovered at least 20 different sites, from Amazon to Ebay to auto accessory retailers that carry these. Some guarantee that they cannot be read by any scanning/photo device, even infra-red. One type comes with an anti-theft device – No honor amongst thieves and scofflaws nowadays. Prices range from $6.00 each to $50 each and one site describes how the cover blurs the camera image while allowing visual reading (Sort of). With the advent of the radar and the newer can’t be fooled radar came radar detectors and radar jamming devices. Now another, better mouse trap has come on the scene to render plate photography useless. The law only states that you must keep your plate unobstructed (snow, mud,etc.)from visual reading. These shields are, for now, legal.
    The score: Scofflaws and privacy seekers – 100% – Police – 0%. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    • Connie Godin :

      Just a matter of time and these devices will be illegal.

    • Christian Noll :

      Jan thank you for your accute observation.

      I had no idea these things exsisted.

      With your keen eye you’ve shared with us yet another example of how money is to be made off of the industrial complex associated with police and the military.

      Its just one big snowball effect on both sides. One side trying heavy handedly to enforce the law, and the other trying to evade it.

      And just to clarify, I’ve never been considered to be a “Scofflaw” or “privacy seeker.” I’m just your regular guy trying to live my life within the confines of our beleaguered constitution.

      Thank you again for your detailed observation. Without it, I probably would not have known about these products.

  10. Tom Karov :

    Just think of the mindset of the people who think up these new ways to “Spy” on the public in general, Big Brother is alive and well…

  11. Tom Whitesell :

    These cameras went in with hardly a blink in St. Lawrence County, Northern New York State, in the spring. I was thinking of “doing my civic duty”, but, ah, well at first I couldn’t relocate the camera which I quickly spotted. Also, the Highway dept. quickly took one down, because nobody had told them what it was doing there!

  12. Mike Curtis :

    So many complaints here at VTDigger.

    But how many will actually formally complain to their Select Board? They control the purse strings. They contract with the sheriffs. They are your voice in these matters.

    If select boards get enough heat on this, they’ll find a way to get rid of these cameras right quick.

  13. Steven Farnham :

    “Bohnyak said he was sensitive to those [privacy] concerns, but noted that officers still use discretion.”

    Would this be the same “discretion” used on Macadam Mason? Hmmm.

    I am less concerned about the licence plate readers as such, as I am about the technology used, who has access to the data, and as others have suggested, how long the data are kept. I see no reason the data needs to be archived for even 90 minutes, let alone 90 days, or (gulp) 4 years – Are you serious?! Once the reader has “sounded its tone,” signalling that a person of interest is in the area, the authorities should act (or not) as is appropriate, and then move on. No data should be stored at all – or should it be? Perhaps it depends on who stores it, and what is done with it…

    To begin with, I believe licence plates are obsolete, and favour their replacement, or at least upgrade, to current technology. Equip them with RFID chips (or similar) that can be read within a hundred feet or so of a vehicle. And I think every citizen, every driver, every bicyclist, and every pedestrian (not just the police) ought to be able to own an RFID reader. Think of what this would mean to rude and reckless or hit-and-run drivers. You can easily log a complaint against a tailgater or someone weaving in the road. No more trying to read licence plates in the rear-view mirror, no more trying to read licence plates which are obscured by mud, went by too fast, are missing, and no more trying (and failing) to read them at night. If someone breaks into your home, or abducts your child, a properly placed RFID reader might save the day.

    Why do we assume that officers of the law are the only ones qualified to determine that another person’s driving sucks? Imagine of a kind of “Angie’s List” that keeps track of certain RFID numbers that collect too many complaints from other users of the road. Such would amount to a high-tech “how’s my driving?” database. When a policeman stops you for failing to “come to a full and complete” stop, such “Angie’s List” information would be quite useful in determining if you are a menace that ought to be cited, or just someone who is in a hurry, who apparently uses good discretion when “bending” the law, and could be let go with a warning.

    Conversely, if you have been cited into court, your “Angie’s List” data could serve as a get-out-of-jail-free card, or garner you a reduced penalty (or garner you a considerably heavier penalty) as the case may be.

    I am guessing ACLU-minded people will have numerous concerns about such an idea, but if we are going to carry identification data on our vehicles anyway, why not have it readable to all, not just to those with a quick eye, good vision or good fortune? Why not penalize those with habitually bad driving, not just those who had the misfortune of having a cop witness a screw-up?

  14. Steve Levy :

    I’ve also noticed many cars with undercarriage bike racks completely obscuring the license plate – with or without bikes actually on these racks. Could it be legal to drive around with a metal large post covering one’s license plate?

    I would expect the license plate cover technology to morph into a James-Bond-like semi-transparent liquid crystal display that can alter the appearance of the characters underneath.

    It is only a matter of time until the state requires that each vehicle be identified electronically.

  15. jay davis :

    Why are Americans asleep and apparently afraid or just apathetic.
    Do any of you recall after 9-11 the fear mongering color for terrorism alerts. These are similar to red flags when the weather might be right for bush fires.

    Every day Americans tolerated this non sense. Its a yellow alert, then a brown alert…
    Talk about how IQs have declined.
    Now we laern Romney can lie all he likes because nobody reall wants to think or even tell the truth.
    Cheating is everywhere and considered even a virtue if you can hoodwinck the unwary.
    This Nation has sunk to new levels of dishonesty and indifference.

    • Christian Noll :

      Jay its true.

      We now have this “Post 9/11″ fear mongering which feeds right into the police and military industrial complex.

      Public official get away with distruths and not telling the truth.

      Its sad our country is changing.

  16. Charles Dorner :

    An electric chair is also “an effective tool” for preventing people from taking our freedom away.

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