South Portland PD, Sen. Bliss: Plate scanner compromise too restrictive

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A bill regulating the use of automated license plate scanners is being called too restrictive by South Portland police – the first in Maine to test the technology.

The plate readers use cruiser roof-mounted cameras that can read license plate numbers on passing cars and automatically search for them on several local, state and federal databases. If a match is found, an audible tone alerts the officer.

A compromise on a bill that would have completely banned the technology was reached last week by the Transportation Committee. Among other things, that bill would not allow officers to manually enter a person’s license plate number into the system unless that officer had “reasonable and articulable suspicion” to stop the vehicle.

South Portland Police Lt. Frank Clark said that law enforcement standard requires officers observe a direct law violation, giving police probable cause to detain and frisk the suspect. That standard would not allow police to enter plate numbers of reported drunken drivers or vehicles reported to be transporting drugs.

State Sen. Larry Bliss, a South Portland Democrat who serves on the Transportation Committee, said he agrees with South Portland police. Bliss said the restriction would also hamper using the technology in Amber Alerts or finding missing people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Bliss said he would be encouraging the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, chairman of the Transportation Committee, to remove the language from the bill.

“That’s a concern of ours and we’re going to try to get that language out of there,” Bliss said. “I would certainly defer to (Damon), but if he prefers not to do that, then I would offer a floor amendment to remove those words.”

Meanwhile, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which supported Damon’s original bill to ban the technology over privacy concerns, said the safeguards included in the compromise are a step in the right direction.

“While the compromise falls short of a total ban that we continue to support,” MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows said, “it nonetheless provides important protection from police abuse of power and the threats to privacy.”

Bliss said other compromises in the bill include allowing South Portland to continue using the plate scanners, while Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap convenes a committee to conduct a year-long evaluation of the equipment and recommend appropriate parameters.

The committee, Bliss said, is to issue a report by Jan. 2011.

Police will not be able to store data from the plate readers for more that 21 days. Previously, South Portland said it would store that information for 30 days.

Clark also raised objections to the database requirement, saying it would make it more difficult for police to investigate crime sprees and check on domestic violence victims.

Noting published reports about the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of the technology to catch a sex offender, Clark said the LAPD mined data as far back as 2008 and found a license plate number found near the scene of multiple kidnappings and sexual assaults to make an arrest.

“We’ve seen how it can be used effectively in other districts,” he said.

Bellows, however, said the restrictions are needed to protect innocent people from surveillance and guard against abuse of power by police. But Clark said the suggestion that police would use the technology for nefarious purposes was insulting.

“Just because technology changes doesn’t mean our code of ethics changes,” Clark said.

Bliss said the bill could go to the Senate floor in the coming weeks. After the Senate votes, it will be sent to the House.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or