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."
In most cases, police do not tell the people being pulled over that a machine, not an officer, ran their tags, officials said. Unless, of course, the person being pulled over asks, "Did I do anything wrong for you to run my tag?" Cox said.
But to Cox, the mobile plate hunter, as it is sometimes called, is more fair than he is.
"It runs everyone that gets within its camera view," he said.
On a recent afternoon, Cox demonstrated how the tag reader technology works. In just a few hours on patrol, the cameras ran more than 1,600 license plates, allowing him to issue two warnings and the $140 ticket.
Every few seconds in Cox's unmarked car, the computer screen beeps at him. A license plate number, caught on camera, appears with information about the vehicle it is attached to. When there's a problem with the plate number, the screen turns red. When a stolen car is located, the reader makes a noise like a machine gun.
Sometimes, Cox just sits in his stopped car, letting traffic pass him. Other times, he cruises along, waiting for a hit he is sure will come.
"Cadillac. Vehicle emissions. See how fast something happens?" Cox said, flipping on his cruiser lights to pull over the Cadillac as his screen flashes red.
Most of the tag readers in Maryland, which cost about $25,000 a unit, are paid for by the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council, a state organization dedicated to reducing auto theft. The council has purchased seven for the state police, seven for Prince George's County police and at least one for every other county between Harford and Charles -- save Howard, which bought its own, said W. Ray Presley, the council's executive director.
D.C. police have 10 tag readers, and they are used to find stolen cars and catch parking scofflaws. The Virginia State Police have five, though they only recently started using one on routine patrol, spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. The rest have been used in special operations, she said.
Police say there is no question that the tag readers are worth the expense. Prince George's police recovered 400 cars last year using the readers, equal to about $3.7 million, said Maj. Robert Liberati of the county's patrol enforcement division.
Charles County police have recovered 69 stolen vehicles and made 29 arrests in the 1 1/2 years since the sheriff's office began using a tag reader, said Charles Baker, senior detective in the auto theft unit. He said he likes the tool because it allows him to keep his eyes on the road instead of wasting time punching license plate numbers into a computer.
"I just think it makes us a lot more effective and a lot more efficient in how our time is being used," he said. "You can do three to four thousand [license plates] a day with that."
Although police and civil liberties attorneys debate the merits of running that volume of plates, there is one point no one disputes: It is only a matter of time before the tag readers are replaced by more sophisticated technology.
"It's a glimpse into the future," said Steinhardt, of the ACLU. "It won't take long before these things become pervasive, and the one thing we know about technology is it gets more advanced and cheaper as time goes on."