Local police use of vast license plate database raises privacy concern

When Guadalupe County Precinct 3 Deputy Constable Jesse Rosales arrives to work each morning, his computer greets him with a list of people who have outstanding warrants, mostly for minor crimes like traffic offenses. In the past, finding the offenders was time-consuming, and Rosales says there were plenty of days he came up empty.

Yet unlike the old warrant lists, the ones the deputy receives today are a technological wonder. Each defendant’s name is accompanied by a picture of his vehicle; an aerial photograph pinpoints the exact location where the car was observed only hours earlier.

Those details aren’t gathered by police officers, though. For the past 10 months, Rosales’ work has been part of a controversial new venture being tested in Central Texas that mixes public law enforcement, the for-profit debt-collection business and powerful surveillance technology.

The pictures Rosales uses are made possible by high-speed cameras attached to fleets of private cars driven around by bank and finance company repo men cruising neighborhoods in search of delinquent auto loans. Nationally, about 2,300 photos per minute flow into a massive database of license plate photos maintained by a Fort Worth company called Digital Recognition Network.

Then, in a partnership that civil libertarians and privacy advocates worry could cross the line from efficient policing to intrusive government and corporate snooping, client law enforcement agencies use that information to obtain up-to-date locations of scofflaws who owe money. When Rosales finds one of his targets using the photos and his own company-supplied license plate reading camera, the person can be arrested, or pay up right away — 10 months ago, the deputy also had a credit card reader installed in his cruiser.

In exchange, a Digital Recognition Network-affiliated company called Vigilant Solutions gets to keep a 25 percent fee tacked onto the fine. For a standard traffic violation warrant, that comes to about $75.

In recent months, constables and the sheriff’s department in Guadalupe County have installed the system, as have the cities of Kyle and Lakeway. (Lakeway owns its cameras and so gives no money to Vigilant from warrant collections.) Others around the state say they are considering it. Those using it report they are thrilled with the results. Letting people pay directly to police is convenient for defendants, they say, and potentially keeps them out of jail.

It has also been lucrative. A year ago, Rosales was working as a constable’s deputy only one day a week. But after he began bringing in thousands of dollars a month, “I went to our court and asked for a full-time person,” said Guadalupe County Commissioner Jim Wolverton.

Today, Rosales works five days a week as warrant server/collection agent — most of them cruising outside the county, in San Antonio, where his Vigilant-provided maps often display clusters of license plate pictures linked to outstanding warrants. The county has collected about $208,000 in the past year.

Yet privacy advocates say the system raises a number of troubling concerns. They 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. Critics fear police will use Digital’s vast trove of license plate photos to conduct “virtual stakeouts” on homes to monitor who is going and coming, and when.

And while some states have placed limits on the increasingly powerful tracking technology police and private companies are using for the license plate reading system to protect citizens’ privacy, Texas has not.

After nearly a year of using the system, at least one Guadalupe County official is questioning whether the new program is really how local police should be operating. Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Sheryl Sachtleben said she began having doubts after constables began using the technology to round up old warrants from as far back as the 1990s.

“The license reader program was presented as a way to catch felons, stolen vehicles and kidnappers,” she said. “Not to cruise Main Street and hit on $50 warrants from 12 years ago.”

100 million pictures a month

Snapping a photograph of a car’s license plate is clearly legal. Courts have long declared that capturing an image in public spaces is protected under the First Amendment — which, in a simple way, is all companies that gather license plate pictures say they do. “Vigilant is not capable of doing anything that a human cannot and does not already do,” its lawyers pointed out in a 2014 federal lawsuit filed in Arkansas.

Yet privacy advocates say the equation changes when such photographic documentation is done not once, or even dozens of times, but rather hundreds of millions of times, and stored into a searchable database that can potentially be combined with other personal information. “When you know where somebody travels, you can learn quite a lot about their lives,” said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Court documents show that Digital Recognition contracts with “camera affiliates” to provide a constant stream of license plate images — primarily repossession companies and tow drivers whose company-supplied cameras suck in photos at the rate of one per second as they drive around. The company says its database contains more than 3.5 billion images of license plates. It adds 100 million more each month.

In Texas, Digital Recognition’s affiliates had already collected nearly a quarter-billion images by 2013, according to a presentation the company gave to law enforcement agencies that July. Projecting its growth estimates at the time — 10 million Texas images added monthly — the number today would be close to a half-billion images of Lone Star license plates.

Once a license plate is digitally plucked from the photos, it is stored in a database that can be sliced different ways, said Brian Shockley, vice president of marketing for Vigilant. For example, the location of a particular license plate could be searched over time, which would yield a time map of the vehicle’s whereabouts.

A query of a particular address, meanwhile, could yield a list of vehicles that visited there, and when — a “virtual stakeout,” according to Vigilant literature, that police could use to identify a drug house. More recent innovations include the ability to link people by the shared proximity of their cars’ license plates.

Many of Digital Recognition’s customers are private companies, such as banks or other lenders seeking to repossess vehicles due to delinquent loans. (Founder Todd Hodnett, of Fort Worth, grew up working for his father’s repo company.) Insurance companies also use license plate information to combat fraud. One Digital Recognition product matches the location of a license plate with a policyholder’s address to make sure the place he claims to be garaging the vehicle is actually where it is parked.

Although many police departments have used their own license plate readers for years, Vigilant Solutions also markets Digital’s vast database to law enforcement. According to its 2013 presentation, Vigilant promotes its technology to police for a range of uses, from the ability to read license plates with a smartphone, to pole-mounted plate readers installed at a city’s boundaries for “perimeter security.” Police say the data is invaluable in helping them locate stolen vehicles, find crime witnesses and work Amber Alerts.

In the 2013 Texas presentation, Vigilant also proposed merging a police car’s mobile camera with criminal history databases so officers could be alerted whenever an ex-convict is in their vicinity. It also said in the future Vigilant could merge powerful new facial recognition technology with license plate records. A spokesman for the company said both initiatives have been discontinued.

Banned in two states

Outside of his Schertz office, Rosales eases onto Texas 78 and parks in the middle turn lane. Each time one of the three Vigilant license plate reading cameras mounted on his SUV successfully reads a plate, it emits a soft ping. If it alerts on a car belonging to a person with an outstanding warrant or a sex offender or a vehicle reported stolen, the sound becomes a short sirenlike “whoop” accompanied by an alert on his computer screen.

Police who use the company’s cameras say they don’t share the photos they take back with Vigilant, which says it in turn shares its information only with customers. Still, in recent years some courts have expressed concern over how the sheer volume of electronic information can intrude on privacy.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that installing GPS on a car for a month of surveillance without a warrant was a violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches. While it was true that anyone could legally watch or even follow a vehicle on a public street, the court concluded the electronic accumulation of those observations over time was different.

“GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious and sexual associations,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.

In the past, limitations such as the cost and manpower needed for stakeouts naturally limited police surveillance. But Sotomayor noted that, given the increasing reach of technology, as well as its relative low cost and ease of use, a new definition of privacy may be warranted. “I would ask whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated” in a way the reveals so much about their private lives, she wrote.

Similar worries over the growing amount of personal information that might be pieced together from the collection of license plate photos have led some states to place limits on their storage and use. According to a 2015 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than a dozen states had laws restricting the use of the systems by law enforcement or private companies.

While most placed limits on police use of the systems, Arkansas and Utah banned private companies from amassing license plate data. Nate Steel, who authored the Arkansas bill, said he’d become alarmed after learning about “the tons and tons of data about individuals and where they’d been” being collected and stored.

In response, Digital Recognition Network/Vigilant sued the two states, contending their ban violated the company’s First Amendment rights, particularly given that “license plates contain no sensitive or private information whatsoever,” Vigilant wrote in a filing.

Utah in 2014 amended its law to permit Vigilant and other private companies to operate in the state. Arkansas resisted, and last fall an appeals court ruled its officials were immune from being sued by the company; the ban remains.

‘An incredible intrusion’

While Texas police departments may adopt policies, the state currently has no laws limiting license plate readers. Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, last year introduced a bill that would have limited law enforcement agencies to keeping the images for only a week. He said he wrote the bill after hearing of police organizations intending to keep the pictures on file for two or three decades.

While his bill applied only to law enforcement agencies, Rinaldi, an attorney, said he also had concerns about private companies collecting and keeping huge volumes of personal license plate data — particularly when it was shared with government agencies. “This is an incredible intrusion into the private lives of citizens,” he said. “I think people would be alarmed if they knew what was happening.”

His bill died, along with a similar proposal from Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake. Texas lawmakers did, however, pass a law laying the groundwork for police agencies to use Vigilant’s data for a new purpose.

House Bill 121 doesn’t mention license plate readers; it simply allows police agencies to pursue “alternative means of payment of certain … fines” — specifically, for officers to accept a debit or credit card payment to satisfy outstanding warrants. Author Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, a former police officer, said his goal was to keep people out of jail — where defendants can go if picked up on warrants. But Vigilant’s Shockley said the law is also what made his company’s warrant-collection program possible.

The only person to testify against it was David Gonzalez, an Austin attorney representing the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. He said that while he supported diverting people from jail, he worried about the potential abuses by police with the authority to take money from people.

“It becomes much more coercive when officers are collecting money,” he said. “And it has the appearance of saying, ‘If you have a credit card and money, you can pay and go home, and if you don’t, you go to jail.’”

The bill was signed into law June 15 — two months after Guadalupe County had already installed its credit card readers into its cruisers to start pursuing the county’s $8.5 million in unpaid fines, raising the possibility county police had collected the fines before legally allowed to do so. Precinct 3 Constable Michael Skrobarcek, who led the effort to install the license plate readers and credit card collectors, said he had thought the new law went into effect earlier.

‘It’s nice to have’

Guadalupe County Sheriff Arnold Zwicke said his two deputies with Vigilant cameras have recovered 15 stolen vehicles over the past year. Skrobarcek said the cameras have helped his two-person precinct identify more than two dozen.

He also deploys the cameras to regularly scan parking lots at school events to search for registered sex offenders. “Luckily, we’ve never found one yet,” he said. “But it’s nice to have.”

Records show Rosales has personally collected $46,000 since the program began. He will accept either in-car credit card payments or accompany a defendant to a convenience store to get a money order. After so much success driving into San Antonio to find old warrants, he said he hopes the county will soon let him start cruising Houston, too.

“Before, when I was doing warrants the old way, I wasn’t even collecting $500 a month. It was nothing. That’s why I love this system.”

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