Cruiser-Top Cameras Make Police Work a Snap

By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 2, 2008

The two softball-size cameras on top of Maryland State Police Cpl. Mike Cox's unmarked cruiser trained in on the license plates whizzing by when, "Bam!" The small computer screen inside Cox's car flashed red.

Like clockwork, Cox flipped on his lights and pulled over the van. Then he slapped the driver with a $140 ticket for a suspended tag resulting from a failed emissions inspection.

"You got me," said Francis Dent, 22, of Upper Marlboro.

He was surprised to learn how.

A camera had snapped the plate number on his company's van, along with hundreds of others along Charles County's roadways, and run it through the Motor Vehicle Administration database.

Initially purchased to find stolen cars, a handful of so-called tag readers are in use across the Washington region to catch not just car thieves, but also drivers who neglected or failed their emissions inspections or let their insurance policies lapse. The District and Prince George's County use them to enforce parking rules.

Police say the readers, which scan every license plate they pass and run the tag numbers through state or federal criminal databases, are invaluable in recovering stolen cars and catching crooks.

"Anywhere you go, it gets 'em. Anywhere," said Cox. "This thing's unreal."

Critics argue, though, that the cameras are the latest piece of invasive surveillance equipment entering the market without adequate regulation.

"What it illustrates is how the technologies for surveillance have developed at the speed of light, but the law that controls how those technologies can be used is still back in the Stone Age," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program. "We've got to develop some rules of the road here to protect our privacy."

In the absence of laws governing the technology, Steinhardt said, legal challenges to the tag readers are difficult, if not impossible. Because license plates are visible in public, they are fair game to be scanned, he said.

"This is one of the situations where people think surely, there's a law that governs this," he said. "Well, there aren't laws."


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