Key Biscayne looks into use of license plate scanners

08/08/2014 3:26 PM

08/09/2014 10:11 PM

After a “rash” of vehicle burglaries and auto thefts in the Village of Key Biscayne, Jason Younes, the village’s deputy chief of police, conducted a staff study with officers and Chief Charles Press last October to brainstorm for a more efficient way to catch criminals who enter the key.

But council members anticipate that village residents and visitors may be divided on whether the method — an automated license plate reader — will protect their safety or infringe upon their privacy.

“In an era of greater expectations and reduced budgets, the use of technological advancements are a force multiplier for all agencies, but in particular the smaller ones like ours,” said Younes as he addressed council members and Mayor Frank Caplan during a zoning meeting in June. “An automated license plate reader system is precisely that force multiplier — it will enhance productivity and law enforcement capabilities, increase the number of arrests, and offer greater ability to conduct criminal investigations.”

The license plate reader system, which would be mounted to static posts at the entrance and exit of the village, would alert officers when a vehicle that is flagged in the state and national databases comes into the village. The alerts will generate a color photograph of the vehicle and its license plate, which will then be sent to officers. It will record the time and date, tag number, and vehicle description.

The system is used by other police departments throughout the United States to recover stolen vehicles and to aide in Silver and Amber alerts. Sunny Isles, Miami Beach, Hialeah and Doral use plate scanner systems, and Coral Gables uses mobile ones attached to patrol vehicles.

Mayor-elect Mayra Pena-Lindsay addressed her unease with how the system tracks and stores information from noncriminal motorists, saying: “My concern is not that it scans the tags and alerts when something has been flagged … my concern is that it records all the tags and stores that information … indefinitely?”

“We would set the perimeters as to how long we keep that information,” Younes said. “We could set it for 30 days, we could set it for 60 days — it would be completely up to us as to how long we keep that information in the system.” They haven’t decided if they would share information regionally with other departments yet.

The American Civil Liberties Union found that law enforcement agencies who were using plate scanners were “increasingly capturing drivers’ locations outside church, the doctor’s office and school,” through information obtained by a public records request conducted in July 2012 to 600 police departments throughout the country, including Miami-Dade.

Their findings showed that the information used by federal agencies and state police departments was “giving law enforcement and private companies the ability to build detailed pictures of citizens’ lives. In some instances, the stored information stretched back months, even years.” As of July 1, of this year, Senate Bill 226 was enacted to exempt images and personal identifying information obtained and held by an agency through the use of license plate recognition systems from public records.

Bringing plate scanners to Key Biscayne would cost $95,000 and would be funded with taxpayer money through the Capital Improvement Plan and possibly some grants, as laid out by the Village Manager John C. Gilbert, from his budget projections for the next fiscal year. The money would cover four cameras and installation.

Council members asked what types of warrants the system would flag people for.

Village attorney Stephen J. Helfman said it would be up to the agency to determine that. Younes said his department could set up filters so that only warrants that infringe upon public safety would be delivered to officers.

“Back in February, we had kids coming in stolen vehicles — it would’ve picked them up. It will provide data of peak hours of when they’re coming in and out. Or if they come out here to steal a car, we're able to capture what time they left,” Younes said. “This will increase the quality of life for residents.”

If Chief Press and Younes decide to move forward with getting plate readers, the council will need to vote before moving forward with its implementation. Younes said the item may be discussed further at budget hearings either on Aug. 26 or Sept. 2. Residents can voice their opinions there during public comments.

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