Tool meant to catch car thieves in Baltimore sparks concern

Just as the average person depends on technological advances more and more in his or her everyday life, so does law enforcement. There are constantly new gadgets that are meant to help serve and protect the community.

One of those law enforcement gadgets is called the License Plate Reader. The tool is used in Baltimore, throughout Maryland and other parts of the U.S. The readers are designed to scan images of vehicle license plates in order to try to match them to theft cases or other traffic-related offenses.

The Baltimore Sun reports that the License Plate Readers have been in use in some areas since 2004. Since the tool’s introduction into Maryland, local advocates for the plate readers boast that there has been about a 40 percent decrease in the rate of car theft in the state.

That alleged benefit doesn’t come without a hefty price. Each License Plate Reader costs an estimated $20,000. Last summer, Maryland was given a $2 million grant specifically for implementing more use of the license readers. Readers are placed on patrol cars, in specific stationary locations and at certain tolls.

Law enforcement isn’t just using the reader images for theft-related purposes. According to reports, Maryland investigators are using images from a recent traffic accident to try to find a motorcyclist who led an officer on a fatal high-speed chase. The officer crashed and died in his pursuit of the motorcycle, and authorities are still looking for the motorcyclist.

A reported drawback of the license reader devices is that they have a hard time scanning motorcycle plates. In the case of this accident, there was a stationary license plate reader near the site of the crash. Investigators were able to identify the plates of other drivers around the crash at the time in order to contact and ask them about potential information about the motorcyclist’s identity.

As you might be able to guess, the use of license plate readers is not met with complete acceptance. Civil rights advocates fear that the devices could endanger citizens’ rights to privacy. They argue that people who have not broken the law wind up as subjects of an investigation, and their data is stored by law enforcement for an entire year. A representative from the American Civil Liberties Union says, “Police are not supposed to be keeping files on people who are not breaking the law.”

What do you think about the License Plate Readers? Do you have any experience with them? Have they affected you in some way? Do you think that they are a smart and fair law enforcement tool or a violation of privacy?


The Baltimore Sun: “Using hidden cameras to catch car thieves,” Don Markus, 22 Jun. 2011

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