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