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Tag readers a popular but controversial new police tool
Gainesville Police Department calls technology a valuable asset, but some raise privacy concerns
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Cameras on the left side of the patrol car shoot photos of vehicles to the front and rear. The right side shoots only toward the front. All cameras shoot a color and a black-and-white photo for each passing car — color for identification and black-and-white for an easier to read plate. - photo by NAT GURLEY

If you’re driving in Gainesville, that patrol car perched in the median might be reading more than your speed.

The Gainesville Police Department has a patrol car mounted with a license recognition system, allowing the officer to record and run license tags using a character recognition software, a technology unavailable to the department until December.

Nationally, capturing license tags is becoming a popular police tool. For the first time, the number of tag captures has reached the millions, according to a study published July 17 by the American Civil Liberties Union based on information from hundreds of law enforcement agencies.

Departments keep the records for weeks or years, sometimes indefinitely, saying they can be crucial in tracking suspicious cars, aiding drug busts, finding abducted children and more.

In Gainesville, an officer with the Proactive Community Enforcement unit runs the software. If it records a tag that indicates the owner should be pulled over — for reasons from a felony warrant to expired tags — an alarm goes off.

Police spokesman Cpl. Kevin Holbrook cited its effectiveness thus far, netting 238 arrests and citations since its January implementation.

“This is a valuable tool, almost acting as an additional officer in its own way,” Holbrook said. “It is a tool that is constantly seeking out the criminal element that may be hiding in plain view that the normal patrol officer would not have the capabilities of locating or observing.”

He cited solid police work gained from the technology last weekend, where officers were able to not only locate a stolen vehicle but apprehend a drug suspect in the process.

“The vehicle was reported stolen out of Hall County and subsequently recovered occupied a short time after,” Holbrook said. “The LPR picked up a ‘hit’ on the stolen vehicle and officers were safely able to recover and apprehend the driver. Not only did they recover the stolen vehicle and make an arrest, but furthermore located a substantial amount of drugs and drug paraphernalia.”

The department paid $19,050 for the technology, but expect it will pay for itself in fees, Holbrook said.

Gainesville attorney John Breakfield serves as part-time prosecutor for Gainesville Municipal Court, which primarily handles traffic related citations within Gainesville. He agrees the device is beneficial, and explained how it remains legal.

“Tag readers quickly determine whether the tag is suspended through the state of Georgia, which is usually for not having valid insurance,” he said. “Uninsured drivers are a danger to the community. If someone runs into another driver and causes damage to the vehicle, or the person suffers injuries, and they do not have insurance, then that burden falls onto the innocent driver to pay the bills or the community as a whole through health care costs.

“While driving on a public street, anyone can see another driver’s license plate — this includes law enforcement. The tag reader does not even get into a search-and-seizure issue because the license plate is publicly visible on a public roadway.”

But to appease privacy concerns with data storage, the ACLU has proposed police departments immediately delete any records of cars not linked to any crime.

According to the June 2012 application to the Gainesville City Council, the information gathered by police is stored long term.

“The system shall allow storage of plate reads for at least one month and up to 12 months and retain those records after data transfer to a server for long term storage,” the application reads.

The system is able to store at least 10 million records in its “hotlist” database.

The ACLU found that only five states have laws governing license plate readers. Georgia has no law that limits how long plate information can be stored.

Albert Reeves, a former Clermont city councilman, is troubled by the storage aspect.

“What’s the benefit of storing the information?” he asked. “You wonder if the public official even read the term where it said it would be stored one to 12 months.”

Other residents agreed, asserting that privacy has become a commodity. But others disagreed regarding privacy, befuddled as to why people would have qualms with a crime-deterrent technology.

“I don’t see how that could negatively affect me,” 28-year-old John Frank Dieguez said.

His greater concern was keeping the streets free of crime.

“If there are people that don’t have insurance, they shouldn’t be driving — it’s illegal. If there are people that have prior warnings, or felony charges, they shouldn’t be on the streets.”

His friend, Austin Ulsh, 26, agreed.

“If it’s keeping criminals, people who don’t pay for insurance off the street — those people are huge detriment,” he said, adding, “I don’t see how it can cause harm.”

Holbrook said that the technology can be used in situations where a victim’s life or well-being is at risk.

“This tool is not only looking for the criminal element but also those that may be endangered or missing,” he said. “It can be utilized to locate individuals in which a Mattie’s call or an Amber alert have been issued — we are able to deploy the system in the last known area or an area we think the individuals may be heading towards. Overall, we are pleased with the system thus far and are always happy with positive outcomes for the betterment of the community.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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