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January 05. 2013 10:05PM

License plate scanners fuel issue of need versus privacy


Rep. Steven Shurtleff, D-Merrimack- District 11 
Police in New Hampshire want lawmakers to let them use high-speed cameras on cruisers that scan the license plates of passing vehicles to look for bad guys.

But at least one legislator is concerned that collecting the license plates of thousands of state residents in this manner could violate their privacy rights.

Rep. Stephen Shurtleff, D-Concord, submitted a Legislative Service Request - a request to draft a bill - on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police to allow the scanners to be used.

Shurtleff, a retired federal marshal, said the cameras scan license plates into a computer that can check them against outstanding warrants. "If the operator of the vehicle was wanted, it would come back with a hit," he said.

The devices would also be valuable during an Amber alert, he said.

Sunapee Police Chief David Cahill is past president of the chiefs association and chairs its legislative committee. He has been studying the use of license-plate readers by police in other states, and he's convinced it's a valuable tool.

Cahill said the high-speed scanners, mounted outside a cruiser, can capture as many as 20,000 license plates over an eight-hour shift. The scanned plates are checked against the computerized National Crime Information Center database.

If the system finds a match, the officer gets an audible alert and a photo of the license plate pops up on the screen. Police can then run that plate to determine the owner or check with the police department that is looking for that vehicle, Cahill said.

Before he votes for such a tool, Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, wants to make sure the data collected on "innocent" drivers is purged. Otherwise, he said, you're creating a database that could be used to retroactively track where a certain vehicle has been.

"You can make an argument this would be a wonderful record," Kurk said.

"Not in America. Not in New Hampshire. Not in the year 2013. That's 1984."

Cahill said he understands that some have concerns.

"I think they're concerned it's a police state and we're going to be watching what everybody's doing. I can assure you that's not what our interest is," he said.

"Law enforcement's interest is still to protect life and property, and this is one of the tools that will help us protect life and property in the state."

One point of contention is how long the data would be stored.

Cahill said he'd like to see the scanned plate information stored for at least a few days, which he said could be a big help for investigators who want to find out whether a certain vehicle was in a particular location.

His town has a lot of seasonal residents, so police often find themselves investigating a crime that occurred several days earlier that wasn't discovered until the weekend. Being able to look back at the license plates of vehicles that were in the area could be an enormous help, he said.

Police in lower Manhattan keep all of the license plate records they collect from these scanners, Cahill said. "And because of the terrorist activity they have in the city, they're justified in doing it, and the state of New York allows them to do it," he said.

It's different here, he acknowledged. "We'd like to keep it three to five days because of the investigative value it holds," he said.

But Cahill said having the scanners at the patrol level is the real value: "Putting them on our marked police cars and having them on the street for getting those offenders off the street."

Earl Sweeney, state assistant commissioner of safety, said this kind of device is currently prohibited under New Hampshire law.

He said a few years back, some of the departments in the northwestern part of the state started using them - until Sweeney informed them they were against the law.

Sweeney said he expects the bill would address privacy concerns. But he said there is merit to holding onto the license plate information for a time.

For instance, if a child were abducted, police could review stored license plate data to see which road a suspicious vehicle may have taken, Sweeney said.

"It certainly is a valuable tool, and hopefully they may be able to put enough safeguards in the bill that will satisfy the privacy folks," he said.

The Department of Safety would use the cameras if the bill passed, but supports "reasonable restrictions," Sweeney said.

"We don't want to pry into people's lives or know where you went last Saturday night," he said. "That's none of our business - and shouldn't be."

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Shawne Wickham may be reached at swickham@unionleader.com.

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