Automated License Plate Readers – The Beginning or The End?

The use of electronic surveillance by law enforcement is quickly approaching critical mass across the United States. Between the Internet, street-level surveillance camera systems, GPS tracking technology and automated license plate recognition systems (ALPRS, “automated license plate recognition system” is a system of one or more mobile or fixed high-speed cameras combined with computer algorithms to convert images of registration plates into computer-readable data), the amount of information that could be available to the government about your life and activities is extremely interesting. And not necessarily interesting in a good way.

The Maine Legislature has concerns about the impact that non-court regulated police surveillance activities could have on our lives.  In the last session, the Legislature limited the use of automated license plate recognition systems to the police, Maine Department of Transportation and Maine Turnpike Authority.  It also limits the storage of the data to twenty-one (21) days unless specific data is considered intelligence or investigative information or commercial vehicle screening data. 29-A M.R.S.A. § 2117-A.

But is this enough?  When you leave your home to go shopping, do you expect that the police are going to scan your license plate, tag it in the computer and potentially track your activities by making a record of where you were on a particular date and time?  Will they or do they have the ability to instantaneously cross-reference that tag to your driving record? There is nothing in the modified law to stop law enforcement from posting a ALPRS on the road into and out of your town, thus tracking who is coming and going. The ALPRS could prove I was at the bakery and off my diet!  Triangulate the ALPRS with credit/debit card data or Transpass and my day-to-day movements are locked-down.

The Maine law requires the Secretary of State to establish a “working group” to study and assess potential issues relating to the use of ALPRS by the authorized agencies.  That report is to be submitted to the joint standing committee of the Legislature having jurisdiction over transportation no later than January 15, 2011.  We should all look forward to seeing the results of that report.

In the meantime, when you’re leaving the house to go out for dinner, the government may be right there with you.  In the name of DUI/DWI/OUI enforcement, some police officers sit outside of the bar/restaurant, wait for you to come out and follow you.  Some police officers run license plates through their cruiser personal data terminals while you’re inside the restaurant eating and drinking, just to see what vehicle owners have an active suspension or bail conditions.  The ALPRS really broadens that scrutiny.  So get your papers out Ladies and Gentlemen, there’s a new sheriff in town, and who you are and where you’re going matters more all the time.  Congratulations to the proponents of a totalitarian government, you are winning.

John S. Webb, Esq. 207-283-6400

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