They are just two small boxes mounted on a handful of local police vehicles, but they have the capability to scan and store the license plate number and location of hundreds of vehicles per minute.
These automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) can help identify stolen vehicles or vehicles connected to a wanted criminal. However, a lack of laws governing record retention also creates the potential for the license plate data to balloon into a giant searchable travel log of law abiding citizens, warns the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a newly published report.
"Databases of license plate reader information create opportunities for institutional abuse, such as using them to identify protest attendees merely because these individuals have exercised their First Amendment-protected right to free speech," the ACLU wrote in its report, titled "You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans' Movements."
JASMINE ROGERS The Marietta Times
Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite is flanked by two automatic license plate readers mounted on the back of a police cruiser Tuesday. The readers can scan and store the plates of hundreds of cars per minute.
Locally, both the Marietta Police Department and Beverly Police Department use the ALPRs.
The ALPRs are intended to be used to find vehicles associated with crimes or criminals, said Marietta Police patrolman Rhett Walters. The ALPRs pull from a "hot list" of suspected license plates.
"Once it hits a plate and verifies it, there's an audible warning," he said.
What the American Civil
Liberties Union has to say
Automatic license plate readers used by many law enforcement agencies can snap and store the plate number, location, date, and time, of hundreds of licenses plates per minute.
A lack of guidelines means agencies can keep whatever license plate records they want for as long as they want, creating the potential for agencies to track the movements of innocent motorists.
The ACLU says this could lead to a violation of rights.
It is a technology that Marietta resident Barbara Garverick, 61, said she is glad police have at their disposal.
"I think it's a good thing because we have so many drug problems that they need some tool beyond just the public information," she said.
Newport resident Sophia Moretto, 18, agreed.
"I feel it's better to have the system and be safe rather than sorry. I think they should keep the program in place in case something (like a kidnapping) pops up," she said.
Much of the ACLU's denouncement targets not the technology snapping the license plates, but the rules regarding what happens to the license plate information once snapped.
Locally, those snaps are immediately uploaded to a system maintained by the Franklin County Sheriff's Office, which retains records for numerous police organizations using ALPRs throughout the state.
The Franklin County Sheriff's Office, unlike many targeted by the ACLU, has a retention policy in place. The agency retains records for 90 days and only shares records with law enforcement agencies, said their Investigations Chief Marty Buechner.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol has an even stricter retention policy, said Patrol public affairs commander Lt. Anne Ralston.
"We only keep it for a very short period of time. Generally all the non-hit captures will be deleted within a 24-hour period," she said.
Positive hits are digitally stored for 31 days, but are retained longer in hard copy format, she said.
The state patrol has had more success with the readers than local agencies. Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite was not certain the last time a reader hit a wanted vehicle, but noted that it happens rarely and usually for less serious crimes such as shoplifting.
Both the Washington County Sheriff's Office and the Belpre Police Department used the readers at one point, but discontinued use because they required technological updates.
The state patrol has 20 ALPRs statewide and none are used locally, said Ralston. Of the 20, 11 are fixed units-usually mounted on stationary structures near the Ohio Turnpike-and the remaining nine are affixed to vehicles.
The ALPRs "have been very successful," said Ralston.
The state patrol's "hot list" is nationwide, while local law enforcement agencies pull from a statewide system. Franklin County receives roughly 30,000 scans per day, resulting in approximately 200 hits per day, said Buechner.
Any new technology should be given due concern, said Marietta resident Douglas Haga, 61.
"Anytime you have electronics involved and there's no regulation, there's a very real possibility for abuse," said Haga.
He agreed with the ACLU.
"It's not the technology that's evil," he said. "It's how you use it."
Because an outside agency retains records for Marietta and Beverly, there is little potential for abuse, said Walters.
Data is purged from individual ALPRs within two weeks and local officials would need to go through the FCSO to request location records more than two weeks old, he said.
Furthermore, there is no expectation of privacy concerning license plates in the first place.
"You could have a neighbor who takes a picture of your license plate every day and stores it in a closet," said Walters, adding that it would be perfectly legal behavior.
Marietta resident Sara Barker, 25, saids he thinks the readers have little effect on law abiding citizens.
"I think if you're not doing anything wrong, there's nothing to worry about," she said.
While both the Highway Patrol and Franklin County Sheriff's Office have well-defined retention policies, neither organization is required by law to do so, pointed out ACLU of Ohio Policy Coordinator Melissa Bilancini in a press release.
"Ultimately we support state legislation that would create standards for all law enforcement agencies that ensure transparency and protect privacy," she said.