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Bill to authorize license plate scanners slated for House vote

Last modified: 12/29/2013 12:59:17 AM
Driving undetected in the Granite State could become more challenging for criminals – and everyone else – should a bill authorizing automated license plate scanners make its way through the Legislature next year.

The bill, which was shelved this spring and is up for a House vote Jan. 8, would allow law enforcement agencies to use the scanners to collect plate numbers from passing cars and then run them through a database of those listed in connection to regional and national crimes.

The police say the readers, typically mounted on cruisers, would help them apprehend dangerous criminals and expedite searches for missing persons. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stephen Shurtleff, introduced it on behalf of the state Association of Chiefs of Police, which pushed for it after officers in the Upper Valley who were using the cameras were told they lacked the authority to do so.

“I think it serves a legitimate law enforcement need,” said Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat and former U.S. Marshall. “It can take dangerous people off the street much sooner.”

But privacy advocates contend that the technology would result in unwarranted stops and, on principle, represent an unnecessary intrusion into the lives of law-abiding citizens.

“What they really want is to make more traffic stops and get traffic tickets,” said Rep. Mark Warden, a Manchester Republican and member of the House’s criminal justice committee.

New Hampshire is the only state that still prohibits use of the technology, except in certain locations, such as bridges and tollbooths.

Under the bill, officers could use the scanners to identify an array of crimes and individuals, including stolen vehicles and those believed to be occupied by “wanted, missing or dangerous persons”; people who have failed to appear in court, who have criminal warrants pending or in effect, or whose driving privileges have been revoked; suspected terrorists or others transporting stolen property or contraband; commercial trucking violations; and “case-specific criminal investigation surveillance.” A provision in the original bill allowing officers to use the scanners for parking violations has been stricken from the latest draft.

Also altered was a provision in the original text that allowed officers to retain the data they collect for up to two hours. In the latest version, they must purge it after three minutes, unless a plate pops up in connection to an eligible offense. Prior to making a stop, officers would have to verify with a third party – such as a dispatch operator – that the plates indeed meet that criteria.

The bill drew limited support last month among members of the justice committee, which ultimately voted, 10-7, to send it to a floor vote. Warden said in a committee report that he had deep concerns for the “erosion to Granite Staters’ privacy advanced by this legislation.”

Though the amendment addressed some of his critiques – that the scanners would be used to drum up parking ticket revenue, for instance – Warden continues to have strong reservations. He noted that the technology is known to fail at times, mixing up similarly shaped letters and numbers or misreading plates that are bent, dented or slightly blemished. He said he doesn’t believe officers will consistently verify scanned plates with a third-party source before making potentially unwarranted stops.

That New Hampshire is the only state that still restricts license plate readers: “Great,” Warden said. “I like to think we still respect people’s individual rights to privacy here in New Hampshire. I don’t want to give the state any more power than it already has.”

Other groups, including the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, also oppose the bill.

Shurtleff said the additions made to it, especially the three-minute purge provision, should appease those concerned about privacy invasions.

“We’ve had serious crimes and missing persons and homicides and other acts of violence, and anything that can help law enforcement and improve public safety is a good thing,” Shurtleff said. “But the rights of individuals have to be safeguarded. That’s why I’m glad the amendment was added. It made it a better bill.”

Kensington police Chief and President of the police chiefs’ association Michael Selicki said the three-minute rule is less than ideal because officers preoccupied with an arrest or other matter might not be able to look into an alert on the scanner before the information on it is erased.

The duration that data is allowed to be stored varies widely among other states. In some, it is deleted immediately. In others, it can be kept for weeks or even months. A federal bill proposed this year by Massachusetts Congressman Michael Capuano and co-sponsored by New Hampshire Rep. Carol Shea-Porter would require that it be erased after 30 days, unless there is an ongoing investigation.

“Long-term, would we like to see the records retained longer? Absolutely,” Selicki said. “But for now, we just want to get the technology to the state. It would be very helpful.”

“We’re really looking for a tool to help us with crime, not parking tickets,” he said.

Selicki said he doubted that the scanners would become widespread if the legislation is adopted. Police departments can apply for grants to help purchase the units, but they still cost about $1,500 to $1,800 each, he said, and at least at his department, there are more pressing needs.

“We don’t have the budget for them,” he said.

“We are very sensitive to people’s rights,” Selicki added. “That’s our job. . . . We don’t want to know where you go every day. We want to use this as a tool to solve major crime.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, 
jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)


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