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Kyle steps out of license plate database program

The city of Kyle has backed out of a pilot partnership with a private company to use license plate readers to serve arrest warrants and collect unpaid fines.

The city had signed the deal with Vigilant Solutions in January, but the Kyle City Council voted overwhelmingly to rescind the agreement at a meeting last week. Council members said they were responding to concerns raised by some civil libertarians about how personal information, such as the location of cars, was being captured and stored by the California-based company and law enforcement.

The American-Statesman reported Sunday that in recent months law enforcement agencies in several Central Texas communities, including Kyle and Guadalupe County, have entered into partnerships with Vigilant through what officials call a “warrant redemption program.” The program was made possible through a change in state law last year, although the Guadalupe program appeared to have started before it had legal authority to do so, the paper found. Kyle had installed the software and was in the process of placing the cameras on some of its police vehicles.

The arrangement works like this: a Fort Worth company affiliated with Vigilant called Digital Recognition Network has outfitted the cars of repo men and tow trucks with cameras that take millions of pictures of license plates every day. (The company said it has accumulated more than 3.5 billion images nationally.) Those are then merged with a participating police agency’s “hot list” of people with outstanding warrants to generate a map of where the scofflaws’ vehicles were last spotted by the company’s plate readers.

An officer can then drive over and try to immediately collect the money; part of the program gives police the authority and equipment to collect money on the side of the road. Police cars are outfitted with the license plate reading cameras as well, so local officers can identify vehicles associated with outstanding warrants as they drive around their jurisdictions.

Vigilant supplies the participating agencies with the equipment for free. In exchange, the company gets to keep a 25 percent fee tacked onto the fine. For a standard traffic violation, that comes to about $75.

Supporters of the program say it saves drivers who owe fines a potentially costly and embarrassing trip to jail for a penalty they might have simply forgotten to pay. Police say the readers also help them recover stolen cars and give them another tool to search for Amber Alerts and criminals on the road.

Yet privacy advocates say the system raises a number of concerns. Those concerns range from the potential for abuse by police suddenly given the authority to collect money directly from defendants on the side of the road, to Vigilant’s fees piling another burden on cash-strapped defendants. Civil libertarians also worry about the vast license plate database giving the company and police the ability to trace a map over time of a car’s whereabouts.

Kyle’s council members last week heard testimony for nearly 45 minutes from Vigilant officials as well as from its city legal and police departments. In his appeal for the city to keep the program, Vigilant Vice President Joe Harzewski gave council members letters of praise from numerous law enforcement agencies that had worked with the company.

But in a 6-1 vote, with Council Member David Wilson the only dissenting vote, the council scuttled the deal.

“There were some questions I didn’t ask the first time through,” Mayor Todd Webster said. “I was looking at it more of a pocketbook issue for the city. Had I asked some of those questions, my vote probably would have been different than the first time.”

“It’s a little too Big Brotherish for me, and it’s a little too invasive for me,” Council Member Daphne Tenorio said during the Tuesday meeting. “I’m uncomfortable with it.”

Vigilant said in a statement after the vote, “We were disappointed by the Kyle City Council’s action to end the Warrant Redemption Program pilot – a program that would allow citizens a pathway to resolve outstanding warrants and avoid jail time. However, we fully respect the City Council’s decision.”

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