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Nov 26, 2013

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One of the Racine Police Department’s automatic license plate reader on a patrol car Friday, May 10, 2013. / Gregory Shaver [email protected] Buy this photo at jtreprints.com

By Alison Bauter, Journal Times

RACINE — A newly floated state law that would curtail the use of automated license plate readers is receiving skepticism and outright criticism from local law enforcement.

Limiting the readers’ use “will undoubtedly have serious public safety consequences,” Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said.

Mounted on squad cars, the readers capture license plate images, turning the information into data files that can indicate who the vehicles are registered to.

In Racine, Chief of Police Art Howell said his department uses five of the devices for traffic enforcement, investigations and special events. Howell originally thought the department would not store the data obtained but said last week it is kept on file indefinitely.

A bill currently circulating the Capitol for support would limit use of those devices and how long agencies could store the information obtained through them.

The proposal

“This bill addresses an alarming expansion of the use of automatic license plate reader technology by law enforcement,” Republican state Rep. David Craig, wrote in a memo to fellow legislators last week.

Craig, whose district includes much of the Waterford area, said he sees the validity of using the technology to apprehend and investigate criminals. But, his memo states, law enforcement agencies reportedly maintain license plate images for up to seven years.

“The vast majority of these images are becoming nothing more than a database of the whereabouts of average citizens,” Craig wrote. “The time has come to ensure the civil rights of citizens are not being violated, while also ensuring law enforcement has the tools needed to effectively enforce our state’s laws.”

Craig and two fellow legislators are seeking support on the bill from fellow legislators until Dec. 6.

Local impact

Analysis of Craig’s bill by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau suggests it could impact the Racine Police Department’s use of the technology, as described by department spokeswoman Sgt. Jessie Metoyer.

According to that analysis, government and law enforcement agencies would be prohibited from using the automated plate readers, “except as part of an active criminal investigation of an identified suspect.”

According to Metoyer, a common use for the department’s readers is scanning plates on parked vehicles at the scene of a crime, such as a homicide. In that case, there may be no “identified suspect” at that time.

Additionally, “all information obtained must be destroyed within 48 hours unless the information is necessary for the purpose of further investigation or prosecution of the identified suspect or for another criminal investigation or prosecution,” according to the Reference Bureau analysis.

But using the same example — plates scanned at a crime scene — Metoyer said deleting such information in a 48-hour time frame is “unreasonable and concerning.”

“You might not know who your offender is within the first 48 hours,” she said. “Eventually, people may come forward with information or a person may be identified later, and that (license plate) information would be very, very valuable to us.”

Currently, Metoyer said, the Racine Police Department has not deleted any license plate information obtained through the plate readers so far.

Racine police have only been using the technology for two years, she said. “For now, we’re kind of analyzing how long we want to keep” the resulting information.

Metoyer and Howell both stressed the information is well-protected, and police do not — in Howell’s words — “comb through this data just randomly.”

Local opposition

Schmaling said his office doesn’t use the automated readers but would do so if they had the funding.

Schmaling stated in an email, “As properly licensed vehicle owners and operators, we shouldn’t expect to have any expectation of privacy to our license plate information that is clearly out in the open for identification purposes and used only by law enforcement. Legally driving a properly licensed automobile on Wisconsin roadways is a privilege, not a right!”

Schmaling argued readers simply do the job officers already do, but more quickly and efficiently.

Said Howell, “It’s some uncharted waters, and there definitely has to be some safeguards put in place. … I don’t have a problem with being regulated, I just want to make sure it doesn’t obstruct law enforcement in the process.”

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