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Two Views: Should the police have access to license plate scanners?

Should local and state police officers be allowed to use license plate scanners as they are in other states? That’s an issue that the New Hampshire House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has been wrestling with in recent weeks.

In coming days, the full House will be asked to vote on the issue. The committee recommended the bill – but it was a sharply divided (10-7) vote. Here’s what the majority and minority had to say about it:

Democratic Rep. Delmar Burridge of Keene, writing for the majority: This bill as amended is enabling legislation that will allow cities, towns and state law enforcement agencies to decide whether to use license plate scanners, License Plate Recognition devices. The use of the LPR technology will be strictly limited and will allow police officers to heighten traffic safety, recover stolen license plates and vehicles, and most importantly recover missing children under the Amber Alert system and apprehend individuals who present a risk to public safety.

An LPR will be used by an officer to scan license plates only for certain law enforcement purposes as follows: stolen vehicles; vehicles driven or occupied by wanted, missing or endangered persons; people who have defaulted court appearances; people with criminal warrants pending or in effect; people with suspended or revoked driver’s licenses or registrations; persons suspected of criminal or terrorist acts, transportation of stolen items or contraband, or motor vehicle violations; commercial trucking enforcement; case specific criminal investigative surveillance; and finally, license plate canvasses in homicides, shootings, and other major crimes or incidents.

Records of captured license plate numbers must be purged from the LPR within three minutes unless the identified vehicle causes an alarm which results in an arrest, citation, protective custody or identified a vehicle that was subject of a missing person or wanted broadcast.

In the case of an alarm, the plate may be retained until disposition of the court case.

New Hampshire is the only state that does not permit the use of LPR devices. In states using LPRs, several favorable court decisions have been issued to establish that this technology is proven, reliable and verifiable.

Finally, this bill establishes strict standards for using the devices and retaining data that will protect civil liberties, while ensuring limited but effective use.

Republican Rep. Mark Warden of Manchester, for the minority: The minority is extremely concerned about the erosion to Granite Staters’ privacy advanced by this legislation. This bill would allow local police departments to acquire expensive license plate reader devices to hand-hold or mount on law enforcement vehicles. This issue came to light when the Hanover Police Department was informed that it was violating state law for using such devices for parking enforcement.

Several people from the public spoke against this bill. Only law enforcement spoke in favor. The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and the association of criminal defense lawyers spoke in strong opposition to the bill. The committee is deeply divided. We have serious concerns about the accuracy of LPR devices.

There are 50 states, and each state has multiple generations of plates, using different fonts and letter styles, not to mention special-issue versions such as Moose, Veterans, Arts, Pink Ribbon and other such plates. This bill also allows partial number matches, which exponentially expand the chance of false positives.

Another concern is the accuracy of the data being cross-referenced by these systems. In regards to computer programming, there is the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out.” New Hampshire has no way to verify that the databases contain up-to-date information about missing persons, moving violations, warrants, or other data points from 49 other states and the federal government. Yet all that information will be used to investigate local drivers whose New Hampshire plates register a match. We cannot enforce the accuracy of the databases, and thus the possibility for harassing innocent people is unacceptably high.

The potential for wrongful traffic stops, car chases, and arresting non-offender drivers of vehicles is too great for the minority to accept. This Big Brother approach to policing goes against Fourth Amendment protections to be secure in your papers and effects. Every minute law enforcement spends looking at license plate readers is a minute not patrolling dangerous neighborhoods or trying to solve crimes against people and property. Spending time and money to enforce unpaid parking tickets is not in the best interest of the people of this state.

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