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Your license plate may be on candid camera Privacy fears rise as police scan vehicles to nab illegal drivers, ticket scofflaws

Hundreds and possibly thousands of people drive on area roads with no license, expired registrations or dozens of unpaid parking tickets.

These traffic scofflaws thought they were safely hidden from the prying eyes of the law.

Not anymore.

Police in Buffalo and across the country are employing a high-tech camera that instantly scans license plates and finds arrest warrants, lapsed registrations or other violations.

"The capabilities of this thing are unbelievable," Buffalo Police Inspector Michael F. Gaspar said.

Buffalo police issued more than 2,600 tickets and misdemeanor summonses during a recently concluded trial run, and they continue to use the license plate reader on traffic patrols.

This adaptation of technology could revolutionize police work, officials say.

Privacy advocates, however, are concerned that the cameras are too intrusive and allow police to search drivers electronically without their knowledge.

"Why don't we just have a policeman run our license plates as we pull out of our driveways every morning?" asked John A. Curr III, who heads the New York Civil Liberties Union regional office. "Absent guidelines, the propensity for abuse is enormous."

The infrared cameras that read license plates rely on technology that recognizes letters and symbols and checks them against a computer database.

They scan the plate, take a photo and break down the image into digital characters.

This is a new application for optical character recognition, or OCR, technology that has been around in various forms for at least a decade, said Venu Govindaraju, director of the University at Buffalo's Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors.

The Italian postal service initially used the technology to sort postcards at mail facilities, said Mark E. Windover, president of Remington Elsag, the firm that produces the cameras used by police in Buffalo and 140 other areas.

>'A lot to be learned'

For police, the value of the camera is obvious.

It's painstaking for officers to type every license plate number into a computer as the cars are passing by on the road.

But the Remington Elsag cameras can scan a license plate in less than a second, even across four lanes of traffic or when the car is driving at high speed, the company said.

"There's a lot to be learned from a license plate," Windover said. "Vehicles are involved in 70 percent of all criminal activity."

Police in Washington, D.C.; California; Maryland; and Florida are among the departments using the license-plate readers, according to news reports.

Closer to home, the Erie County Sheriff's Office, state police and officers on Long Island and in Schenectady and Rochester are using the cameras.

State police have 75 license-plate cameras and began using the technology about 18 months ago, mainly on road patrol, Inspector Stephen J. Smith said.

And Customs and Border Protection agents rely on cameras set up at the area's four international river crossings to check license plates against a national crime database.

In Buffalo, city police received a state grant to buy a $20,000 license-plate reader and received a second reader as a donation from the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.

After a test last spring and early summer, Buffalo police began using the cameras at traffic checkpoints last fall and early winter, said Lt. Thomas J. Masterson of the Traffic Division.

An officer with a camera sat near the checkpoint and scanned approaching cars.

Via an onboard computer, the plate numbers were checked against a database of suspended or revoked driver's licenses and vehicle registrations, lapsed insurance, stolen license plates and vehicles, arrest warrants and other information.

Any time a "hit" came up with the plate or the vehicle's registered owner, the officer with the camera radioed police at the checkpoint.

From September to December, officers scanned the plates of more than 50,000 cars at the checkpoints, Masterson said.

They issued 2,119 vehicle and traffic tickets, gave out 538 misdemeanor summonses, impounded 501 cars and made a handful of arrests for driving a stolen car or possessing stolen plates.

"I think it has been valuable," Masterson said.

But Masterson complained that some City Court judges are too quick to dismiss -- or substantially reduce through pleas -- the charges brought against drivers at the checkpoints.

Buffalo City Judge Patrick M. Carney earlier this month dismissed about 20 of those cases. Carney said he based his ruling on a 1992 State Court of Appeals decision that states that police must issue a written set of guidelines before legally operating a traffic checkpoint.

This may be a technicality, Carney said, but it is part of the law.

Masterson, however, said he understood the Court of Appeals decision to apply only to drunken-driving checkpoints.

A review of how City Court judges disposed of the misdemeanor charges filed against 19 drivers through the use of the cameras found that only two of the cases were dismissed, according to City Court records.

Buffalo police still send out cameras with officers on patrol.

"It's good for everybody on the street," said Gaspar, the police inspector. "Nobody wants to be involved in an accident with someone who has suspended or lapsed insurance."

Using the cameras on traffic patrols is just the start of their potential, Remington Elsag's Windover and others said.

>Checks of parking lots

Police someday may drive around the parking lots of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park or Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga and use the camera to find criminals and parking scofflaws.

The readers could be set up at ports, power plants and other potential terror targets, and cameras in one area could be connected to networks of cameras elsewhere.

That frightens some.

Privacy-rights advocates say the cameras are troubling because officers can scan license plates without drivers knowing.

"It basically ignores the distinction between someone who may have committed a motor-vehicle violation and someone who's simply driving down the road," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Proponents of the readers respond that people who are driving legally don't have anything to worry about and that driving on a public road is a privilege regulated by the government.

Each new technology clearly brings more exposure and scrutiny, observers said.

"We have already given up so much of our privacy," said Govindaraju, the UB researcher. "At airports, we are frisked and searched. We can't even bring a tube of toothpaste on board. People have become more accepting of these things."


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