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County OKs license plate reader option

By Staff | Jun 25, 2020

Lee County is expanding the ability of law enforcement to use license plate readers along local roadways.

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners this week OK’d allowing the Cape Coral and Fort Myers police departments to use poles along county roads for the readers.

The move follows a unanimous vote in February to allow the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to use Department of Transportation poles for the scanners.

Representatives of all three agencies which won approval to use license plate readers on county poles say they use the devices.

The technology allows the capturing of all license plates on vehicles that pass through areas in which they are set up. The departments store the images on servers, allowing for plates to be searched for location history.

Cape Coral Police Department

Cape Coral police have 13 license plate readers. They expect to purchase more to place on county poles within the city, CCPD spokesperson Cpl. Phil Mullen said.

Each ALPR costs approximately $7,500. The department has purchased 12 with grants. Of those, eight are affixed to city poles, two of them are on vehicles and three sit on message board trailers.

Mullen said only authorized users in the department have access to the readers. The department’s policy limits queries of the readers to an authorized investigation.

For the department to research a plate’s history, it would be focused on major crimes such as kidnapping and missing person cases, Mullen said.

A retail theft case, like a stolen pack of chewing gum, would likely not cause a query of a license plate, he said.

“There is nothing that says we can’t use it for that reason,” Mullen said.

In a missing persons case, the department could activate the license plate readers to notify the department if a vehicle matching a certain license plate passes through, Mullen said.

“It’s a fully audible system,” Mullen said. If a license plate query was done, a member of the department would have to enter a reason and there would be a record.

“It’s being used for specific investigations,” he said.

Addressing privacy concerns, Mullen said “anytime you’re out in the public, you’re subject to being filmed.”

Mullen compared the license plate readers to those used at toll booths.

Lee County Sheriff’s Office

The Sheriff’s Office confirmed that the agency is using license plate readers.

Specific information, though, including how many are in use and what the purpose of the readers are, was not provided.

Requests for more information regarding the Sheriff’s Office’s license plate readers through the Lee County Government communications office were denied after the Lee County Attorney’s Office stated they consulted with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and labeled information regarding the readers a surveillance technique they consider exempt under state law.

The request included whether the Sheriff’s Office had made requests to the Department of Transportation to use the readers. Under the county’s resolution, the Sheriff’s Office must make a request to the DOT before it can access the poles.

Fort Myers Police Department

Fort Myers Police Department spokesperson Kristin Capuzzi said the department has three mobile license plate readers which it may move away from in favor of stationary readers on the county poles. The department is working out details on locations. Capuzzi said they would likely be placed in high-crime areas.

Capuzzi said the use of the license plate readers to track movements can be “very helpful” in a murder case or if a child is abducted, where “time is of the essence.” She doesn’t envision the license plate readers being used for lower-level crimes.

“There is no reason for us to use it for anything but a felony,” Capuzzi said.

New Civil Liberties Alliance lawsuit

Automatic license plate readers have been challenged by civil liberties organizations in lawsuits across the nation. Recently, a case filed by the New Civil Liberties Alliance against the City of Coral Gables over its ALPRs advanced in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. The case revolves around Fourth Amendment constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.

Caleb Kruckenberg, litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance, is representing Raul Mas Canosa against the City of Coral Gables over its license plate readers.

In Coral Gables, Kruckenberg said ALPRs were set up at every major intersection.

“You can basically track somebody’s movements throughout the city.”

Under Florida law, those records can be stored for up to three years. Without restrictions, police departments have “unlimited authority to follow people around in their neighborhoods without a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing,” Kruckenberg said. “You can create a pretty comprehensive view of where somebody has been for three years.”

Kruckenberg has cited the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. Jones whereby late Justice Antonin Scalia issued the majority opinion against the U.S. finding federal and metro police violated the Fourth Amendment by placing a GPS device on a vehicle.

In his opinion, Scalia left the door open for challenges on other similar cases by stating that unwarranted tracking of a vehicle “through electronic means, without an accompanying trespass, is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.” Kruckenberg cited Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion that monitoring a vehicle’s movements over time constitutes a search because it “impinges on expectations of privacy.”

In Alito’s opinion, he also found that the government’s 28 days of tracking was too long.

In his case, Kruckenberg cites Article I, Section 23 of the Florida State Constitution which protects the “right of privacy.”

The organization objects to the way departments share the information, creating a broad record of people’s movements. According to Kruckenberg, the City of Coral Gables has shared the data with more than 80 different agencies, including federal law enforcement agencies who can store the information indefinitely. Kruckenberg said the government can learn the daily habits and travels of citizens, regardless of any suspicion of a crime.

“We think a lot of the problem in Florida is coming from the state,” he said. “They (Department of State, Department of Law Enforcement) are telling municipalities it is acceptable.”

The state legislature approved regulations in 2014 for license plate readers, giving authority to the Department of State and Department of Law Enforcement over their use including the timetable for how long the records can be kept.

County commissioners

Lee County Commissioner Ray Sandelli, R-District 3, explained his support for ALPRs.

“We are all concerned about privacy and all these things but when something happens what’s the first thing people want to look at? People want to know if there is a camera,” Sandelli said. “I’m sure there are some roads where you want it and some where it’s not a necessity.”

A message left with Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Brian Hamman was not immediately returned.

The resolutions approved by the commissioners cite cost savings.

The cost of acquiring a new pole to fasten a license plate reader has been estimated at $50,000. By accessing the county poles, the agencies only pay $25 per month for electricity to the license plate readers. The agencies have to notify the Traffic Operations Center at least one week before a device is installed.