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Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department adds third automatic license plate reader

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Automatic license plate readers have received a seal of approval from local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors as the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department has installed an ALPR on a third vehicle.

The units cost about $18,000 for two cameras, a laptop computer and a software system. The Sheriff’s Department purchased them with grants from the U.S. departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

“It’s been a great tool for us and certainly a great tool for other law enforcement agencies,” said Sheriff John P. Burns.

Derek P. Champagne, Franklin County district attorney, said the readers have helped officers in his county solve everything from murders to vandalism cases.

“We’re getting unbelievable returns on a small investment,” he said.

A recent federal investigation into human trafficking along the U.S.-Canadian border that soon will be brought to trial with the help of automatic license plate readers has validated their effectiveness, according to Mr. Champagne.

Automatic license plate readers have been a boon for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department since the first was installed in 2006. Readers have picked up thousands of violations over the last few years, according to Sheriff Burns.

Before a sheriff’s deputy takes a unit equipped with an automatic license plate reader on patrol, a “hot list” of suspended or stolen plates is downloaded from a statewide database.

The list does not include expired license plates or inspection violations.

Amber alerts, issued in kidnapping cases, are part of the downloaded information.

According to sheriff’s Deputy John M. Gleason, the license plate readers save valuable resources, reducing the demands placed on dispatchers and freeing air time that can be used for more pressing calls.

The two cameras readers use are extremely sensitive and can pick up the license plates of both fast-moving and stationary vehicles by using character recognition software initially developed to help the Postal Service sort mail.

If a violation is detected, the laptop computer mounted in the patrol vehicle will alert the deputy.

Deputies still confirm violations picked up by the plate readers with the dispatcher before pulling anyone over.

Information collected during the patrol is stored locally and shared with other law enforcement agencies.

“It’s stored on the deputy’s thumb drive that he has in the patrol car. It also is sent to New York state. We download and we also upload their information,” Sheriff Burns said.

The department is also involved in border surveillance.

“We do have plate readers that are in the area of the border,” Sheriff Burns said. “I won’t say if they’re permanent or mobile. We do use it certainly in the Thousand Islands Bridge area and the border area. It’s a way of tracking vehicles that are coming across and how often they’re coming across and can certainly assist us in any investigations of illegal activity.”

Some groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, and some privacy experts, including Mark D. Rasch, a former federal prosecutor who is now director of cybersecurity and privacy at Computer Sciences Corp., Falls Church, Va., have some reservations about the technology.

Though most courts have agreed a person has no expectation of privacy when driving on a public road with a state-issued license plate, “Every license plate photographed constitutes an incremental loss of privacy,” Mr. Rasch said.

According to Mr. Rasch, the practice of unmonitored use of license plate readers opens a Pandora’s Box of unanticipated issues, including the creation of large databases that could be used to track civilians with no criminal history.

Left unsecured, these databases can also be subject to hacking just like any other computer network. How this information is collected, how it is used, who uses it, how it is stored and how long it is stored are all legitimate concerns, Mr. Rasch said.

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