Cameras used to capture vehicle license plates in Springfield spark debate about privacy

Information is used as a tool to combat crime
Published: Jan. 19, 2022 at 11:17 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - High tech security seems to be the mainline of defense when it comes to fighting crime. That includes recording devices used by law enforcement and now regular people like you and me.

Recently a company called Flock Security offered the Springfield police department use of license plate readers on a trial basis.

There are 28 cameras posted around town taking snapshots of cars as they drive by. Information they capture is used to find stolen vehicles or catch accused criminals.

Some neighborhoods are also using the exact same technology to monitor their areas.

But some say this could be an invasion of privacy.

The company behind the system says it’s only meant to increase public safety.

“New things that might help make us more effective and efficient we’re always going to look at,” said Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams.

He says in just a few weeks the Flock Safety system has scanned millions of plates and aided in several arrests, even finding stolen vehicles.

“It’s still pretty new but it seems like encouraging results so far,” he said.

There are 3 privately owned license plate scanners in the Ravenwood South neighborhood.

“You can see the cameras. It has the signs on there to show that anyone who comes in is going to be watched in some manner,” said Matt Mawdsley.

He says that the neighborhood association decided to install them after a property theft occurred.

“We had a neighbor that had someone pull up in front of his house. He had security cameras out in front of his house. The individual walked up, stole some lawn ornaments. You can see in the video the person and you can see the vehicle but it was a side profile view. He drove off. We told law enforcement but because of no license plate capture, we had no idea. So in conjunction with his video plus the capturing of the license plate into the neighborhood, it could have been more impactful to hopefully catch him at that point,” explained Mawdsley.

He says the cameras were installed in March 2020. They haven’t had to review any of the data captured by the cameras in his neighborhood yet. At this time only a few people on the board of the homeowner’s association have access to the information.

Currently, the data is not shared with the police department. A formal agreement must be executed for the information to be accessed by officers.

We spoke to a local defense attorney about the images used as evidence in a court case.

“They open up a whole host of legal issues and potential legal challenges,” said defense attorney Adam Woody.

He says there could be some snags when using the data captured.

“It’s extremely limited in its efficacy anyway in court aside from all the legal challenges regarding admissibility,” explained Woody.

The cameras only take pictures of license plates and vehicles, not the driver or occupants. Woody says it may be hard to prove who committed any crimes while using the vehicle.

Holly Beilin with Flock Security says the company hasn’t experienced many legal hiccups.

“As long as it’s within the legal boundaries it is investigated as evidence and is meant to be used as such,” she said.

However, there is a question of privacy.

“It does just kind of ring of big brother watching you. You don’t have a legal expectation of privacy but realistically nobody wants somebody watching where they’re going or what they’re doing every moment of every day,” said Woody.

“From a purely legal perspective license plates are not individual property. They’re owned by the state. On state and city-owned roads, there’s no expectation of privacy. These cameras are not being put next to windows in houses,” said Beilin.

Beilin says the cameras use a sensor that is motion-activated by a vehicle, not by a person walking within its view.

She also says the system is designed with checks and balances. Specific criteria such as a case number or other identifying information must be entered in order for police to search the database of license plate information.

“For police leadership, that search history is fully auditable. They can go in and make sure their officers are actually searching on the things they say that they’re searching on,” said Beilin.

Mawdsley says most if not all of his neighbors are on board with the system and it instills a sense of security.

“Just don’t mess with us. We’ll catch you,” said Mawdsley.

Chief Williams says he could propose the system to the city council to be used permanently if it proves useful.

“If we like it, it’s going to make a difference and it’s going to make us more effective and efficient in what we do, keeping people safe, that’s what will be the driving factor on if we’re going to spend our money,” he said.

The current software used in Springfield is tied to the National Crime Information Center to track vehicles that are reported stolen as well as another database that tracks people with outstanding warrants.

The images captured are only stored for a 30 day period then permanently deleted.

Beilin says the data is stored virtually protected with security used on the federal level to protect vehicle owner information.

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