It takes about a second for Lakewood, NJ, Patrolwoman Lynn Miller to run a license plate number through a computer to see if it’s legally registered, if it’s stolen, or if there’s an arrest warrant for the owner, said Deputy Police Chief Frederick J. Capper.
Miller is trained in the use of the Automated License Plate Recognition system. It can instantly provide the status of vehicles, or the owners, and is up and running in the township, funded by a $30,000 gra from the federal Department of Homeland Security and state Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness.
Miller is one of the initial six officers chosen to train on the system because she showed strong computer skills and is a self-motivator, Capper said. A total of nine officers now are trained.
Six cameras are mounted on the roof of the “reader car” to read the plate numbers. Information about the vehicle then is displayed on the dashboard computer screen. An alert beeps when a vehicle warranting examination is spotted and the officer then can initiate a motor vehicle stop.
From that point on, law enforcement proceeds just as it would had Miller typed the plate numbers into her computer or called a dispatcher to check the plate, she said.
The constitutionality of such use of computers in police cars has already been tested before the state Supreme Court, said Ed Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
It was decided in one case (State v. Donis) that a police officer may randomly check the status of a vehicle registration or driver’s license, and whether the vehicle or the plates on it are stolen, Barocas said. Going any further than those specific queries could create a privacy issue, he said.
As long as the information gleaned from the system is deemed allowable by the Supreme Court “then it is probably not a problem,” Barocas said.
The concern comes in on what police do with the information they get during the patrol route and how long that information is kept and stored, Barocas said.
Capper said the state Attorney General’s Office handles those determinations, which are still undecided.
The license plate reader car has “an element of Big Brother-ism and that is the view of a lot of people in law enforcement,” Capper said.
“We are here to uphold the law. There has to be a balance of technology,” and it has to be used in the ways that uphold the Constitution, Capper said.
Since it started being used at the end of July, the reader aided in the recovery of two stolen vehicles that were parked, Capper said.
“It has also has alerted us that the owner of a vehicle is wanted on a warrant,” Capper said.
But counterterrorism is the primary purpose of the cameras, Capper said.
The homeland security grant was awarded because the township has seven critical infrastructure sites and key resource points.
Kimball Medical Center and Beth Medrash Govoha, one the world’s largest Orthodox institutions for Talmudic studies, are two of the sites cited in the grant. The other sites are Ocean Health Initiatives Inc., Second Street; Point Bay Fuel, Park Avenue; MGS propane, Ocean Avenue; Church & Dwight Co., Airport Road; and Glasseal Products Inc., Oberlin Avenue South.
The recognition system equipment has “tremendous capabilities that are almost endless,” Capper said. “The technology is certainly impressive.”
According to the grant, information collected by police here – such as the location of a suspect vehicle – is shared with a national crime database.
License plate recognition systems are being used by police across the country in Amber Alerts, gang tracking and investigating car theft rings, Capper said.