Thursday, August 26, 2010

New License Plate Scanners Will Monitor Maryland Drivers

Governor O'Malley has approved the purchase of 105 new Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems.  These devices are used by state police to scan the tag number of every passing vehicle and search a database of license plate numbers for those with some outstanding violation, warrant, or red flag.  The O'Malley administration has stated that the purpose of the systems is to find stolen vehicles, wanted criminals, or vehicles flagged for 'amber alerts' etc.  However the "Security Integration Strategy" document released by the state lists one of the goals of the LPR program as "Identify vehicles linked to drivers with expired licenses, expired tags, or unpaid fines."  The document also note that  "In a single day, LPRs in use by the Maryland Transportation Authority Police were responsible for the recovery of almost $50,000 in scofflaw fees for toll tag violations."

The data collected from these scanners will be stored in a central database.  Each device is capable of scanning and storing thousands of license plates per day along with the time and location it was recorded.

The capabilities of these new cameras certainly can be genuinely useful in fighting some types of more seriosu crime. It does seem possible however that the secondary purpose, revenue generation, may be the primary purpose and the reason why 99% of the vehicles stopped will be flagged.  In Maryland failure to pay a speed camera ticket (or parking ticket) can result in a vehicle suspension, so the possibility exists of people being stopped by police, or even arrested, if they fail to pay a speed camera ticket by the due date (perhaps simply because the notices were lost in the mail or sent to the wrong address).

The document specifically spells out stopping people with unpaid tolls, something which are not a safety issue at all.  This will be of particular value once the ICC (Inter County Connector) is completed.  The ICC will have no cash tolls, anyone who does not have an EZPASS will be sends a bill for the toll (plus a service charge) in the mail.  Since thousands of these bills will be going out ever day, many will inevitably be ignored, lost, or forgotten by the vehicle owners, and these ALPR devices could provide a mechanism for collecting any unpaid, mailed toll bills... on the highway.

The fact is there is no limit to what these devices could be used for because they are currently completely unregulated.  Unlike speed cameras, these devices were NOT authorized by any specific act of the general assembly.  Since there is no legislation covering them there is no public notification requirement, no restrictions on storing or distributing collected data, no restrictions on what types of violation they can be used to flag, no specific prohibition on using the devices to track individual vehicles without a warrant, and no specific requirement that a driver even be told that they were stopped because of the ALPR system.  So if you get a toll bill in the mail, it looks like you'd better not throw it out or risk a very unpleasant traffic stop.