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New tool for NH police: license plate readers

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 07. 2018 9:10PM
Lincoln police officer Michael Stevens demonstrates the license-plate reading technology installed in his cruiser. It's the first of its kind in use in the state. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

New Hampshire law enforcement’s 10-year campaign to be granted the power to automatically look at and record all license plates ended successfully this week with state-of-the-art cameras mounted atop a Lincoln Police Department cruiser.

“We’re very excited about this and it’s been quite a while in coming,” said Lincoln Police Chief Ted Smith, standing just outside the vehicle on display at the New Hampshire Chiefs of Police Public Safety Expo in the Manchester Downtown Hotel on Thursday.

Police say the plate reader will quickly alert officers to cars that could be linked to crimes or missing persons.

Some privacy advocates, however, aren’t happy that lawmakers decided in 2016 to end New Hampshire’s status as the only state in the country with a law that prohibited using automatic license plate readers.

“I find the use of these license plate scanners for any purpose to be abhorrent and not in our New Hampshire tradition,” said state Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton. “There’s no other way to describe what this is other than an intrusion into someone’s privacy.”

The Automatic Name Plate Recognition System was invented in the United Kingdom in 1976. It captured the pictures of license plates from large fixed cameras installed above key intersections.

In the 1990s, the industry came up with mobile, point-and-click technology that allowed cameras to be put on moving police vehicles.

By 2012, the Police Executive Research Forum found 71 percent of all American police departments used these readers; virtually all federal law enforcement agencies have had them for years.

1,500 plates a minute

The cameras now being used in Lincoln can photograph 1,500 license plates per minute.

As of 2018, there were 14 states that placed limits on how long police can retain the data.

New Hampshire police can only keep the plate data for three minutes, by far the shortest period of time. The longest term is three years in the state of Colorado. Many states have no limits on storage.

“New York City literally has billions of plates on file, so many duplicates of course, but they have never erased a single file,” said Pat Fox, national sales director for Secure 24, which designed the first readers that are New Hampshire-compliant.

“It took us two years to develop this software precisely because you can only hold onto the information for such a short period of time,” he said.

New Hampshire law also permits the cameras to photograph only the license plate, not the car, the occupants or anything inside the vehicle.

The plate number alone does not constitute “reasonable suspicion.” The police officer must verify with the local dispatcher that a license plate matches the car that is the subject of a warrant or alert.

“You’ve got to follow up and do police work before someone gets pulled over,” Smith explained.

The plates are automatically matched against the National Crime Information Center, the federally run crime database, as well as the state of New Hampshire’s Department of Safety database. That includes stolen vehicles, criminal warrants, vehicles involved in homicides, shootings, terrorist acts or other violent crimes, along with those that are the subject of Amber or Silver Alerts.

“We have used this to locate seniors who were really at risk and so many missing children,” Fox said. “We aren’t just grabbing bad guys. We are helping the community.”

Any plate that triggers a match can be retained by police, but only until the completion of the case.

10-year limit on law

The Legislature’s chief expert on privacy issues, House Finance Chairman Neal Kurk, R-Weare, gave his approval to the state law.

Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Bedford, became the bill’s prime author and agreed to let it be repealed after 10 years, in 2027. That will force the Legislature to take a future look at it.

Peterson also produced a letter from the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police that pledged to legislators they would oppose any attempt to give police greater access to this information over the next decade.

“I think we have straddled the line very carefully between privacy and law enforcement,” Peterson said.

Last month the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against law enforcement, finding that license plate data could constitute an invasion of privacy. It handed the case back down to a lower court to make the final call on the cameras.

Tuftonboro Chief Andrew Shagoury, current president of the chiefs group, doesn’t believe the cameras will be installed everywhere right away.

“There is a real expense to it; you just don’t put it on your cruiser and off you go. Each department locally will have to make the case,” Shagoury said.

The equipment costs between $12,000 and $15,000, and will only be installed in one cruiser in Lincoln.

Sunapee Police Chief Dan Cahill, past president of the chiefs lobby, is a major advocate of the plate reader. His town has applied with Secure 24 to become the second community to use it.

Public Safety Lincoln


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