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Busted by a license-plate reader

The high-speed cameras are getting less expensive, and even tiny police departments have them. That means your car's location is being recorded and saved in a database.

By MSN Money Partner Aug 2, 2013 10:21AM
This post comes from Mark Vallet at partner site logoHere is what may have happened the last time you drove past a police car or under an overpass: A license plate reader used its high-speed camera to capture a picture of your car. Software analyzed the photo, identified your plate number and checked it against a "hot car" list.

Speeding ticket (© Corbis)If you are a criminal, driving a stolen car or even a car with a lapsed registration, the system sounded an alert and more than likely you were pulled over. But even if you are just another law-abiding citizen running errands, that photograph, along with the date, time and location information, is now stored in an ever growing police database.

License-plate readers are everywhere
License-plate readers are proliferating at an alarming rate according to a recently released ACLU report. In the not too distant past, LPRs were used only by major police departments, but thanks to falling costs and federal grants, LPRs are making their way to much smaller cities.

A 2011 survey found that almost 75% of the responding police departments were using LPRs. Even more striking was the fact that 85% of the agencies planned to increase their use of plate readers over the next five years.

The federal government has been instrumental in getting LPRs into the hands of local police. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Homeland Security had funded more than $50 million in grants for LPRs.

Once they have an LPR, police departments are using them -- a lot. They can be attached to overpasses and bridges or mounted on patrol cars. Most of the time you won't notice them, and will have no idea that your license plate has just been recorded.

Are license-plate readers effective? ACLU says no, police say yes
License plate readers are great for collecting plate data but the jury is still out on whether they actually prevent crime. The ACLU examined data from Maryland and found that of the 29 million plates recorded through May of this year, only 0.2% were hits.

Furthermore, of that 0.2% a whopping 97% were for minor violations like driving with a suspended registration.

A 2010 George Mason University study found similar results. Cynthia Lum, one of the lead authors says, "Our study found that LPR had no detrimental or preventative effect on crime. Auto theft has been declining for years, not because of LPRs but because of better anti-theft technology and people locking their car doors. Many of the hits are for cars that have been abandoned, most cars are eventually recovered without LPR."

Police disagree. Detective Fredrick Roth of the Philadelphia Police Real Time Crime Center says, "Our LPR system has helped us recover several stolen vehicles."

LPRs can be deployed during a bank robbery and collect plate numbers en route, and help law enforcement respond to carjackings, kidnappings and Amber Alerts. They are also being used to combat more serious crimes, like terrorism, say police.

License-plate readers and car insurance

LPRs are particularly effective at alerting police to drivers operating on a suspended license, with an expired registration or without car insurance. If your plate generates a hit, you may be in for an expensive ticket.

In St. George, Utah, one police officer reported he issued 400 tickets to uninsured motorists in the city over an 18-month period.

"Driving with a suspended license can result in a dramatic increase in your insurance premium depending on where you live. In North Carolina, for example, it's 8 points which equals a 195%  increase in car insurance rates," says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst for
Privacy issues abound

The increased use of license plate readers is creating serious privacy concerns, according to the ACLU. As local and regional police departments gather, pool and share LPR data, enormous databases of driver locations are being created.

License plate readers capture and store a driver's location when recording a plate. A driver might be tagged outside of a doctor's office, workplace or church. All of this data is making it possible for law enforcement officials to piece together a fairly accurate picture of a person's life.

The ACLU report contends that LPR information could easily lead to abusive tracking, institutional abuse and discriminatory tracking. Anyone with access to the system and a grudge could potentially track an ex-wife, boss or workplace rival -- the options are endless, say privacy advocates.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the data there is a bit of a Wild West mentality, with no consistent set of laws or guidelines.
Currently, only five states have passed laws regulating the use of license plate readers.

Law enforcement agencies, for the most part, disagree on the privacy issue. They say license plate readers simply speed up a process that cops have been doing manually for years and drivers should have no expectation of privacy while out in public.

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Aug 2, 2013 1:19PM

We seem to be able to afford to have license plate cameras over hundreds of thousands of miles of roads throughout the entire USA, butut they can't seem to afford to come up with a camera system to effectively alert law enforcement when there are illegals crossing back and forth over the mexican border of less than 3,000 miles.


Weak kneed, spineless, corrupt politicians almost to a person.


They don't seen to be doing  much good in Texas.  They can't even catch the toll

road violators who owe thousands of dollars in unpaid tolls.  Repo companies like them though.

They can find cars that lenders want repossessed at homes, parking lots, apartments etc.  The tow truck arrived shortly.  I believe they are a great law enforcement tool.

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