License plate recognition to be regulated in Maine

Action that would limit use to law enforcement, DOT could be precedent setting
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Thursday, February 25, 2010

AUGUSTA, Maine—The Maine Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee has moved forward a bill this week that would set statewide policy for the use of license plate recognition technology. As part of LD 1561, “An Act to Regulate the Use of Traffic Surveillance Cameras,” LPR data would have to be purged after 21 days, unless actively being used in the investigation of a crime, and only law enforcement, Department of Transportation, and toll booth entities would be allowed to employ the technology in the state of Maine.

Maine would become only the second state to regulate LPR use. New Hampshire passed a far-reaching bill in 2007 that bans the use of any surveillance technologies on a public way, including everything from red light cameras to LPR technology.

The bill was triggered when the South Portland Police Department began using the technology last year. They say it is a force multiplier and allows them to simply do in an automated fashion what they already do manually: run license plates through their system, looking for matches with wanted criminals or those who might be driving with suspended licenses. The Maine Civil Liberties Union and Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Dennis Damon (D—District 28) sought to ban the use of the technology altogether, however, citing privacy concerns. In testimony before the committee, for example, MCLU head Shenna Bellows cited Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous “right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” She then said, “Mainers cherish our right to be left alone by the government—to think, say, and do what we want as long as we are not hurting our neighbors or breaking the law. ALPRs, like all surveillance, threaten those fundamental privacy rights.”

Eventually, a compromise was reached, allowing only for law enforcement and other limited use, and with the 21-day limit on storage.

“Basically, it took about six hours of work sessions to come up with the final draft,” said Rep. Edward Mazurek (D—Rockland). “It was a lot of give and take. The initial bill was to really limit the systems quite a bit; then the sponsor [Sen. Damon] modified it to 21 days and things along that line, which made it a lot more acceptable to both sides.” The committee heard testimony that most other law enforcement agencies keep data for 30 days, for example, and so the 21 days figure was a compromise between Sen. Damon’s desire of just one day of storage and the 30-day benchmark.

Rep. William Browne (R—Vassalboro), ranking minority member on the committee, was happy with the compromise when reached for comment, though he said, “I thought [the South Portland Police Department] had enough checks and balances so that the system wouldn’t have been misused. And there are so many times now when we’re checked—I’m not as concerned with the Big Brother issue as other people are. I felt comfortable with the way they were going to use it.”

When asked whether he understood that security companies, for example, could lose business tied to access control and parking control, where LPR is often used in commercial applications, Browne said his committee had not considered that aspect of what they were doing. “That wasn’t even mentioned,” he said. “I would think that’s something that could affect their businesses. I can understand that. I can check up on that.”

He did mention, however, that part of the bill calls for a working group to be created, should the bill pass, that would examine how the technology is being used and whether the bill should be altered next year.

When asked if he thought the working group might consider commercial applications, Rep. Mazurek said, “I can’t speak for the whole committee, but I would say right now, probably not ... We want to make sure that this thing is used properly and not just indiscriminately.”

Rob Garrigan, VP of operations, ELSAG North America, a maker of LPR technology designed specifically for law enforcement, has been watching the Maine Legislature closely. He said it’s important that states do set policy and understand how the technology can best be used, but that, in general, once they see the technology’s value they find ways to use it appropriately. “One of the very real results of having that data,” he said, “is that it leads to convictions, often where the crime involved loss of life or property.” Those driving with suspended licenses, he noted, are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident, and this technology helps keep those people off the road, he said.

Garrigan said there are more than 300 agencies in New York alone using ELSAG’s technology, and more than 600 agencies around the country, so it’s not quite in the early adopter stage anymore. “Having said that,” he continued, “in New England, it’s just getting started. There’s a recognition of the technology, both aiding in officer safety and getting the suspended registrations and the like off the road.” Because officers can keep their eyes on the road, instead of scanning for license plates, he argued, the officers can be more focused on driving and not getting injured in accidents.

“It’s a tried and true technology,” he said, “but there are still places like Maine where it needs to be looked at and reviewed and polices put in place.”