Plate scanners helping Maine police identify offenders

By Melanie Creamer
Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND, Maine — South Portland police will soon begin using cameras mounted on cruisers to target traffic scofflaws, people who are wanted on warrants and other potential offenders.

But Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap says the technology may raise privacy concerns that would require legislative review.

The city apparently will be Maine's first community to use the Automated License Plate Reader. Three cameras will be mounted near the blue lights on top of one cruiser - two facing forward and the third facing the rear. The cameras will take pictures of license plates and run the numbers through the National Crime Information Center's database.

Police Chief Ed Googins said license plates for stolen cars or people who have outstanding parking tickets or arrest warrants would be entered into a database created by the city. If a vehicle with any of those plates passes the police cruiser, an alarm will sound in the cruiser.

Googins said the officer will then call a dispatcher to verify that the person to whom the vehicle is registered has a violation or is wanted for questioning. If that's confirmed, the driver will be pulled over by police.

''We are constantly receiving bulletins or messages to look out for vehicles,'' Googins said Tuesday. ''I like that this technology will allow the officer to concentrate on his driving.''

The system cost more than $20,000 and was purchased this fall through a $113,000 grant to make technology advancements in the South Portland Police Department. Googins said 25 to 28 other states use the technology.

He said the department tested the gear during the summer and decided it would be a great asset. ''We try very hard to purchase technology that will make a difference in the safety and security of our community,'' Googins said.

But some say the new technology infringes on the privacy rights of drivers.

Dunlap said he met with Googins in the summer after the department requested access to the Department of Motor Vehicles database for use with the cameras. South Portland was given access to driving records, registration records and titles, but Dunlap said that if the city wants more information, it will need legislative approval.

''We are very cautious about providing access to our database,'' he said.

''There is sensitive information about people in there. We take a weekly snapshot of it, put it on computer tapes and lock it up three floors underground. We guard it very carefully.''

Opponents compared the police technology to traffic surveillance cameras. Earlier this year, Gov. John Baldacci signed a law that bars communities from using photo enforcement to catch drivers running red lights or breaking other traffic laws.

Although traffic surveillance cameras aren't used in Maine, officials say the law was a proactive step to make sure they don't start showing up around the state.

Alysia Melnick, public policy counsel with the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said the cameras violate people's right to freedom of association.

''They can turn the presumption of innocence on its head,'' Melnick said.

''There is no limitation on what kind of databases these cameras would be hooked up to or what list of names would be tracked by the surveillance technology.''

South Portland police Lt. Todd Bernard said the cameras will be useful for law enforcement, or if the state issues an Amber Alert, or police are looking for someone with Alzheimer's disease or dementia who is reported missing.

''It's a great piece of technology,'' he said.

''It's technology that can help us fight crime. It's legal and we intend to use it for legitimate crime-fighting issues.''

Copyright 2009 Portland Press Herald

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