Bloomington City Police Department recently joined a select few law enforcement agencies, including Lakeville, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the Minnesota State Patrol, that are implementing a new technology. This new technology allows for squad cars to be equipped with cameras that are able to scan and read the license plates of up to 2,000 vehicles during a 12-hour shift.
The main purpose of this new technology is to aid officers in locating stolen vehicles or driver’s with warrants, and revoked, suspended, or canceled driver’s licenses. It may also aid officers in finding missing or kidnapped children in amber alert situations.
The cameras are able to scan and read license plates of vehicles parked when the law enforcement vehicle is going up to 50 mph, and of vehicles in motion when both the vehicles are traveling up to 80 mph. The cameras scan the license plates and match the scanned plates with a list of wanted vehicles provided by the state several times daily. The system alerts the officer if there is a match. This is much faster than the conventional way where an officer would have to enter the individual license plate number in a computer or call in the plate number. However, the system, while said to be 90-95% accurate, is far from foolproof. The system cannot differentiate between license plates from different states, and will also read street signs.
In addition, there is no safeguard against potential constitutional abuses, such as illegal stops by law enforcement in situations where an officer is alerted that the registered vehicle owner has a suspended, revoked, or canceled driver’s license, but the driver of the vehicle is not the registered vehicle owner. While an officer can legally stop a vehicle if the person driving has a suspended, revoked, or canceled driver’s license, a stop is illegal when the driver, who is not the registered owner, has a valid driver’s license. However, when a situation like this occurs, and the legality of the stop is challenged, officers can and have relied on defenses to the illegal stop that the person driving appeared to be the same person in the driver’s license photo. Courts have upheld illegal stops where the officer was completely wrong in assuming that the driver had a suspended, revoked, or canceled license on the basis that the officer claimed he believed the driver and the registered owner were the same person. It is alarming that easy for an officer to stop a vehicle, regardless of who is driving, when the registered owner has a suspended, revoked, or canceled driver’s license.
This system is also extremely expensive. Bloomington City Police Department was able to implement the system in only 2 vehicles after receiving a $50,000 state grant. In about an 8-month period, the cameras have helped Bloomington Police recover 17 cars. Lakeville City Police implemented the technology in 2007, the first Minnesota City to do so, and is already in need of a new replacement system. For a system that costs so much and, in reality, is primarily only good for finding stolen vehicles and people suspected of driving illegally, the benefits do not appear to be in line with the costs.