Gloucester County license plate readers help nab suspended drivers
FRANKLIN TWP. — Ptl. Mike Neher fired up the automatic license plate reader, then pulled the new police cruiser out of Franklin Township Police station’s parking lot.
One after another, photos of vehicle plates in front of the cruiser and on each side popped up on the mobile data terminal screen on Neher’s dash as he patrolled Delsea Drive from Malaga to the Clayton border.
In 40 minutes, the ALPR scanned the plates of more than 180 vehicles on Route 47, Route 40 and side roads in the township.
Then, there was a hit on a gray Hyundai Elantra driving toward Clayton on Delsea Drive.
“MVC SUSPENDED” flashed on the terminal’s screen.
Franklin’s November installation of the $18,000 plate reader is among the most recent in the county. Monroe Township’s force purchased its first ALPR more than two years ago.
“The first day we turned it on we popped a fugitive,” said Franklin Township Police Chief Mike Rock.
The equipment is expected to pay for itself in less than six months. Between Nov. 13 and 30, the plate reader helped officers issue about 173 more summonses with an average of about 300 to 400 extra summonses issued in Franklin Township every month, according to Rock.
This year, the license plate reader is anticipated to generate at least $40,000 in revenue for the township.
“It’s not just about tickets and revenue. It’s about getting people off the road who shouldn’t be on the road,” Rock said.
Drivers with suspended licenses, like the driver of the gray Hyundai Elantra, are a risk to other drivers on the road, Neher said.
A driver without car insurance could be a “risk” to other drivers, he added.
Plus, suspended registrations and drivers licenses that show up on Neher’s ALPR screen could be indicators of other criminal offenses like outstanding warrants.
“If I pull him over I can call dispatch and find out if he it’s suspended because he has a warrant,” said Neher, tailing the Hyundai.
The plate reader, which is tied into a database at the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office, is also an investigative tool, according to the chief.
Each license plate scanned is timestamped, dated and logged with the vehicles location. The information can be stored in the database for up to five years.
While Rock said the information can be used to corroborate a suspected criminal’s alibi in some cases, others say the scanning of innocent drivers’ plates could be an infringement of personal privacy.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union’s New Jersey chapter requested information from 21 police departments in the state — including Vineland, Cherry Hill, Camden and Atlantic City — regarding the use of information logged by the plate readers.
“The ALPR technology scans the license plates of every car passing within view of its camera,” said Tom MacLeod, open governance attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “Ordinarily, to stop somebody, similar to needing a warrant to search someone, (an officer) generally needs some type of suspicion they are engaged in some type of wrongdoing.”
The ACLU worries that motorists’ locations are being logged by law enforcement databases, although there is no probable cause that the driver has committed a violation.
“There could be a neighborhood police believe experiences a great deal of crime,” MacLeod explained. “Perhaps you go there frequently because your mom lives there. There is no distinguishing motivation for being a particular location for a particular period of time.”
Rock, however, said the equipment and database information has lead to arrests of fugitives.
“I understand people’s concerns with privacy, but I just don’t see it that way because it’s a two-step process,” the chief said.
When a license plate is scanned, only limited information — the license plate number, make, model and color of the car, and warning about suspended licenses or vehicle registration — is initially available to the officer. The driver’s name, address and driving history are not immediately displayed.
More than 10 years ago, case law was established regarding officers’ use of the mobile data terminals in which officers can quickly run a vehicle’s plates by manually typing it into the computer. According to Rock, officers can run the plates, but cannot randomly pull someone over unless there is a probable cause.
“The license plate reader runs the same way,” he said.
The ACLU has not issued an official opinion on ALPR privacy invasion complaints, MacLeod said.
The organization, he added, is not opposed to technological advances that provide labor savings for law enforcement.
Neher, who has been working with the ALPR since the start of the year, said the equipment is “a lot safer” for officers patroling the road.
“It helps you observe more than you would with radar,” Neher said. “You can look around more because you’re not just concentrated on the radar.”
The equipment frees him up to scan for other possible motor vehicle or suspicious roadside activity, he added.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Neher said. “It does a lot of the work for you ... (but) I’m getting a suspended driver who’s not insured. He’s a risk.”
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