Council members question license plate readers, fear invasion of privacy

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:38 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Columbia Police Officer Cathy Dodd surveys cars with the new ELSAG device on July 2. Dodd has been working in law enforcement for 20 years and said she has seen technology make her job easier and easier with new developments.

COLUMBIA — A Columbia police proposal to buy a high-tech device that can scan license plates and gather data has again heightened city leaders' concerns about privacy rights. 

At a regular meeting on Sept. 8, Columbia City Council members discussed a Columbia Police Department report about the use of the Mobile Plate Hunter-900. Columbia police tested the device from mid-June to mid-July. The Boone County Sheriff’s Department also conducted a 30-day trial with one of the devices beginning May 12.

Both agencies were so impressed they want to purchase one at a cost of roughly $20,000.

The Mobile Plate Hunter can scan as many as 3,000 license plates per hour and has the ability to scan the plate of an automobile traveling 70 miles per hour in the opposite direction. It also uses an infrared camera so that license plates can be scanned at night.

That's exactly what is bothering some council members: the sheer quantity and storage of the data. It's not the first time the council has expressed concerns about surveillance devices and how they might affect the civil liberties of Columbia residents. The council rejected a measure in April that would have allowed the installation of surveillance cameras at various locations downtown, citing concerns over residents' civil liberties.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala was among the council members who expressed reservations about storing license plate data after it has been collected. Though he described the device as “useful technology,” he questioned how the data would be stored once collected.

“If it’s used in the right way for the right reasons, I think it's something we really want and could use,” Skala said. But, he added, “There is potential for abuse.”  

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, who described herself as an “avid supporter” of police during the meeting, said she was concerned about the amount of data that can be collected by the device. The fact that it can record the date, time and location of drivers who were in engaged in no wrongdoing also raised concerns for her.

“I have a problem with government-owned cameras that are surveying people just to survey them,” Nauser said.

Columbia Police Officer Cathy Dodd, a member of the Street Crimes Unit that tested the device, said police were able to make more than 20 arrests and recover one stolen vehicle during the trial period.

Sheriff’s Department Capt. Chad Martin said the department made six arrests and recovered five stolen license plates. He said that though the sheriff's deputies had the device for 30 days, the trial was cut short because the patrol car to which the device was mounted underwent repairs and was out of commission for four days.


Already out there

Officials from both departments said Columbia residents should not have concerns about issues of privacy and civil liberty because of the device.

Columbia Police Sgt. Brain Richenberger, who heads the Street Crimes Unit, said license plates are already in public view.

“There should be no privacy concerns, given the fact that this information is easily accessible by anybody,” Richenberger said. “This is a tool for apprehending criminals.”

Richenberger said that because the device can store information — even for plate numbers that don't instantly raise an alert — police can use it later to gather information on potential suspects.

Martin said both departments retained all license plate numbers scanned with the device throughout both trial periods. He also said Columbia and Boone County residents should not have privacy concerns.

“If the public is properly educated on the device and how we use it, those concerns would go away,” Martin said.

Martin and Richenberger declined to comment on how long the departments would retain license plate data if the devices are implemented.    

Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said it is unnecessary for the devices to store license plate data "to maintain a database full of what-ifs.”

Dan Viets of the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sees that possibility as nearly Orwellian. The license plate reader would be a “major invasion” into the privacy of Columbia residents who drive motor vehicles, he said.

“The idea that the police would consider a database where they could show where everyone is at all times is straight out of ‘1984,'” Viets said.

“Even Orwell didn’t imagine that kind of surveillance."

New surveillance is old news

In April, Mayor Darwin Hindman cast the only vote in favor of a separate proposal that would have installed surveillance cameras throughout downtown Columbia. The proposal also had the support of several downtown businesses and property owners.

After her son, 25-year-old Adam Taylor, was assaulted in a downtown parking garage the night of June 6, Karen Taylor tried to persuade the council to consider surveillance cameras once more, and she began an organization called Keep Columbia Safe to advocate for public safety issues.

Investigators were able to track down Adam Taylor’s attackers just hours after the incident and were able to positively identify and arrest five suspects with the use of video recorded by a camera in the parking garage.

The Taylors appeared before the council July 20 to ask them to reconsider their decision on the cameras. Nauser proposed that the council take another look at the issue, but only three members of the council voted in support of her suggestion.  

In a letter published by the Missourian on Aug. 24, Skala wrote that though he has always supported surveillance cameras in the city’s parking garages, he does not support taxpayer-funded surveillance cameras in highly visible areas downtown.

Skala wrote that existing research has not shown that such cameras have proven to be an effective crime deterrent and that installing the cameras could be a waste of public resources. He added that residents still have a “right to privacy” — even in public places — that is constitutionally protected.

Another issue related to the use of surveillance devices encountered much less friction with the Columbia City Council than with other city governments.  

In July, red-light cameras were installed at traffic lights at the intersections of Broadway and Providence Road, and Stadium Boulevard and Worley Street to catch motorists who violate traffic laws. The city plans to have 16 cameras installed in the next 14 months, according to previous Missourian reports.

The issue has been a cause for controversy in other Missouri municipalities and in the Missouri General Assembly.

While that initiative has begun, it is unclear when the question of license plate readers will be resolved. The council plans to take up the issue again sometime in the next month.

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Charles Dudley Jr September 15, 2009 | 3:54 a.m.

Why is it when concerned citizens want to make our community safer those who want to hide from the law are the loudest to protest?

What does that tell you about our society as a whole and our elected government officials?

(Report Comment)
Joe Blow September 15, 2009 | 9:52 a.m.

This may be a good way to find vehicles that have been stolen. But let's keep up the good old fashioned police work, before this becomes a police state.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 15, 2009 | 4:41 p.m.

Chuck, can you express any good reasons for the police to keep this information after the fact? The only possible reason that I can think of that doesn't give me the willies is to search for a specific license plate after a crime or Amber Alert, and I'm not sure it's even very useful then.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 15, 2009 | 7:20 p.m.

John Schultz any tool in the police arsenal of tools that is not only proactive while the patrolman is on duty but also has the potential to catch those criminals who think they can run or be above the law is a good tool in their tool box.

That is unless you want criminals to get away when they should be locked up.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 15, 2009 | 9:18 p.m.

Chuck, please do explain in detail how you feel saving the data from the automatic license plate readers "has the potential to catch those criminals who think they can run or be above the law." No platitudes please, just some specific arguments.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 16, 2009 | 4:13 a.m.

John Schultz

Hypothetical case in point: Plate scanner has been in use over 6 months gathering info and storing it.

Patrol officer is out on his beat and plate scanner which draws it's info from a potentially nation wide data base is actively scanning.

Patrol officer is in a neighborhood at night cruising his beat when plate scanner spots and tags a plate as stolen out of Texas and flashes alert of a high priority.

Plate scanner also comes up with info about possible most wanted FBI suspect affiliated with sad plate and car.

Patrolman calls supervisor on cell phone to alert him of find by plate scanner.

Supervisor puts law enforcement Matrix in motion and next day criminal is captured by FBI,DEA with the back up of local Major Crime Unit.

That criminal John was living two houses away from you and was a pedophile wanted in the kidnapping of children the same age as yours.

Plate scanner just paid for itself.

Don't laugh to hard it could and has happened where major criminals have been captured in neighborhoods that this citizens once thought were so secure.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 16, 2009 | 9:08 a.m.

Chuck, your scenario would not require CPD to keep scanned license plate data in database. Once a suspect plate is in the database of "bad" plates (as opposed to a database that contains every plate that the scanners has seen and recorded), a hit would come up automatically when it was scanned by the cruiser. There wouldn't be a "next day" as in your scenario; the officer would be able to pull over the vehicle right then and there if the information checked out.

I don't have a major problem with CPD being able to check for stolen plates or suspects with warrants, but keeping that data on-hand for who knows how long or for whatever purpose feels wrong to me.

(Report Comment)
carla page September 17, 2009 | 4:17 p.m.

it is invasion of privacy! big brother if you is socialism,anyone who attempts to gather information about you,to me is a telling what the columbia police will do with the information that they plan on gathering about me that is frightening.that is why i am so careful as to whom i give information too.there is right now in washington d.c. a computer called "the super computer" it has everyones information in that computer,including our social security numbers,our address,s our phone numbers,what we look like,what kinds of cars everyone drives,even your license plate number,your birthdate and it even has death dates.there is a satelite up in space that can read your license plate from space,that satelite sends that information down to a computer on earth can see into your back and front is becoming scary how our information is out there for anyone to use even police officers.oh did you know that the police officers are a part of the "MASONS"
OR "FREE MASONS"i suggest everyone read up on the masons or free masons.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 17, 2009 | 5:37 p.m.

carla page no it is no an invasion of privacy because when you are out in public driving an automobile licensed by the state you just gave up that right to privacy by having your license plate number displayed openly by law and the agreements you signed to be able to get those plates.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 17, 2009 | 9:39 p.m.

Consider this corollary then Chuck, would it be OK for a CPD foot patrol to stop everyone walking down a public sidewalk and ask to see their identification?

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 18, 2009 | 4:15 a.m.

John Schultz if they had seen the citizen's picture in a police briefing or similar police function of their daily reviews or if they had probable cause then the answer is yes.

I myself have been stopped by law enforcement out of the blue for just walking down the edge of a highway and I cooperated with everything they asked and they were polite and cordial and in the end we were both on our separate ways.

If you are not doing anything wrong and you are not wanted by the law because you did not break the law then why be so paranoid about being stopped?

That is unless you are actually or have been breaking the law.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking September 18, 2009 | 4:59 a.m.

carla page wrote:

".there is a satelite up in space that can read your license plate from space"

What brand of tinfoil do you prefer? I find Reynolds has the best combination of flexibility, conductivity, and comfort.


(Report Comment)
John Beaumonte September 18, 2009 | 7:19 a.m.

carla page said, ".. even police officers.oh did you know that the police officers are a part of the "MASONS"
OR "FREE MASONS"i suggest everyone read up on the masons or free masons."

Oh and their Mason rings have to be placed right next to their wedding bands, and .... So what reality shows do you watch while wearing that tin foil that Mark Foecking inquired about? If you purchased a home, took out a loan, applied for a credit card, even subscribed to a cell phone company or cable/satellite (so you can watch your reality shows) you've provided them with much of the same personal info that you bemoan the DC supercomputer contains.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 18, 2009 | 9:01 a.m.

To add more to this as we all know if your license plate is fully visible as it is prescribed by law then anybody can take that number down,store in a PDA or similar device,upload it any central data base online and you are still in another data base whether you like it or not.

All the cops are doing is automating that simple system to make their jobs more efficient.

When you are out in public you have no right to privacy as you just gave that up when you walked out the door and presented your happy self to the world as a whole.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 18, 2009 | 10:12 a.m.

Chuck, way to not answer my question.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 18, 2009 | 10:34 a.m.

What did I post here:

>>> Charles Dudley Jr September 18, 2009 | 4:15 a.m.
John Schultz if they had seen the citizen's picture in a police briefing or similar police function of their daily reviews or if they had probable cause then the answer is yes. <<<

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 18, 2009 | 11:58 a.m.

That's not what I asked. With the key word capitalized this time:

"Consider this corollary then Chuck, would it be OK for a CPD foot patrol to stop EVERYONE walking down a public sidewalk and ask to see their identification?"

I don't have a problem with them stopping a known suspect if they saw someone walking down the street, but it would be a much different thing if the police in my hypothetical situation stopped everyone, checked their license or ID, and kept records of that for who knows what purpose.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 18, 2009 | 3:59 p.m.

So let them stop everyone John there is still no difference.

If you are not breaking the l;aw nor are wanted by the law why is there any need at all to feel paranoid unless you are in fact guilty.

Let them gather info so what.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 18, 2009 | 5:31 p.m.

It's not about feeling paranoid, it's about living in a society where the police are properly restrained by the citizens, the courts, and the law.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 18, 2009 | 7:42 p.m.

John Schultz by your comments on this issue it comes across as if you have a serious problem with any and all law enforcement being able to do their jobs as needed.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 18, 2009 | 8:21 p.m.

Chuck, as usual, your inferences are 180 degrees from the truth. Quite amusing from someone who was hollering and screaming last summer for the police to have their Tasers taken away.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 19, 2009 | 4:30 a.m.

John Schultz it was about Taser control more than taken away and that was in reference to those same Tasers being used against the Mentally Ill and as of now that situation is a whole lot better over all due to alot of online and community campaigning by alot of concerned citizens from all angles of the round table.

(Report Comment)
Arcon Silkovic September 24, 2009 | 11:36 a.m.

John Schultz to answer your question...No police cannot just stop anybody on the street and ask them for identification. Im sure you know it, and that's probably why you asked it, that the 4th Amendment protects us. Officers need reasonable suspicion to stop a person. You cannot just randomly ask for identification. Unless your in TX and you can actually stop a car to see if the driver has a license.

But I also don't see what the big whoop is about gathering information that the State and the Counties already have. To actually live free, we have to give up some of our freedom to let people live safe. Hence you give authority to police officers. And like all other government collected information, it sits in a box collecting dust. might as well start living in a box at the rate your going. Do you know anything about Masons? Or have you watched too many shows on a secret society and made your conclusions from there, because you might as well wrap every other group that lives on this planet as taking over the world. Go see what the Masons do all over your city, from Hospitals to volunteer work. And no Im not a Mason.

And finally Charles....I completely agree with you, people get so paranoid when cops are around. And as you said you give up privacy when you leave your home. Privacy is within the confines of your home, in your vehicle to some extent, and curtilage around your home. But your license plate has no privacy when it is out on a roadway.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 24, 2009 | 11:53 a.m.

Arcon Silkovic thank you and you confirmed every point I have made.

The fact is the police can stop you for probable cause. That is the main point getter in that issue.

Now to "what is probable cause" that is for the Supreme Court Judges to decide not the citizens on the street. That is why they were chosen for those offices.

Thank you for your post.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 24, 2009 | 12:44 p.m.

Arcon, I agree that the state already has the information I have provided them regarding my licensed vehicles. The problem I have, which continually evades Chuck, is that the state does not currently have information about where I travel. Allowing CPD to keep a database of license plate "hits" (and by that I mean plates that were recorded as being seen, but officers had no reason to pull over) does nothing to make the community safer as Chuck seems to think.

(Report Comment)
King Diamond September 24, 2009 | 1:22 p.m.

I'm okay with them keeping information for 24 hours, beyond that there isn't a need.

Reasoning would be if there was a mugging and the muggers jumped in a blue sedan and drove off, if the cop responding to the incident drove past them on the way to the victim there is a good chance the license plate number would be stored in the temporary database and further research would make it easy to determine whom it may be.

If there is a reasonable circumstance and a judge authorizes it, the information should be available -- otherwise it should get automatically deleted and unavailable to law enforcement.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 24, 2009 | 2:05 p.m.

John Schultz just admit it you are overly paranoid of law enforcement.

You and everybody need to realize you are nothing but a simple number in the system anyway and are not as truly important as you yourselves want to believe.

All law enforcement is doing is needing to compile more info on your number than what they have right now.

It really is just that simple but due to citizen's over paranoid tendencies whether due to books that have been written,movies produced,TV shows presented and any other type of mass hysteria media type info presented.

It all comes down to your tiny insignificant number will be processed and more info added to your number in the Matrix Data Base and there is nothing you can do about unless you drop out from society itself,move into a cave,for go all contact with society as a whole and even then that will do no good because you are still just a insignificant number in the database.

Truly John Schultz none of our lil insignificant numbers add up to diddly squat except more info in a data base. Stop acting so paranoid about the collection of your info.

That is such a GOP scare tactic that the GOP loves to fear monger among the populous.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 24, 2009 | 2:19 p.m.

Chuck, as in the past, your attempt at online diagnosis continues to be a failure. Perhaps if you and CPD could justify them "needing to compile more info on my number" then your arguments might have more strength.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 24, 2009 | 4:27 p.m.

No John Schultz by all of your postings about this issue it looks like you are just paranoid.

If you do not want to look like you are paranoid then rethink your thought of how you come across to others online.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 24, 2009 | 4:57 p.m.

Chuck, I'm really not concerned how I appear online to people, like you, who practice psychiatry without a degree.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 24, 2009 | 5:42 p.m.

>>> Chuck, I'm really not concerned how I appear online <<<

The funny thing is that you do or you would not post in protest so overwhelmingly. :)

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 24, 2009 | 6:18 p.m.

No, I'm trying to tell you how wrong you are, but you don't seem to understand that. If I was concerned about how I appeared online, don't you think I would keep the comments to myself? You also forgot to quote that little bit that I could care less what *you* think about me, because your approval and acceptance is not being sought.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 25, 2009 | 3:58 a.m.

John Schultz me thinkest you continually protesteth far too much in vain.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 25, 2009 | 9:31 a.m.

Chuck, let them old-school Baptist preachers deal with those suffixes, it only looks silly when you do it.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 25, 2009 | 10:22 a.m.

John Schultz what looks even sillier is your continual protesting. :)

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 25, 2009 | 10:54 a.m.

Does it look as silly as your continual protesting?

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr September 25, 2009 | 8:35 p.m.

You are so funny when you post claiming to not care.

(Report Comment)

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