Technology fuels ACLU discontent

MARTINS FERRY The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is taking exception with the increased use of technology by federal, state and local law enforcement.

In particular, the utilization of Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), was the target of an ACLU report issued in July.

“A little noticed surveillance technology, designed to track the movement of every passing driver, is fast proliferating on America’s streets,” an ACLU release began. “Automatic license plate readers, mounted on police cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute.”

The organization’s main issue is with how the data collected by ALPRs is stored and used. Only two states, Maine and New Hampshire, have specific laws covering how long data collected is store.

The ALPR system uses as high-speed camera which is attached either to a police vehicle, or mounted in a fixed position.

Once a snapshot of a plate is taken, a computer compares the information from the plate with a “hot list,” consisting of plate numbers of stolen vehicles, drivers with warrants, suspended and revoked licenses, etc.

The Martins Ferry Police Department, along with the Bellaire Police Department and Belmont County Sheriff’s Office utilize this technology; as does the Ohio Highway Patrol. The Wheeling Police Department also uses this technology.

Ferry Police Chief John McFarland explained the system is in use on three department vehicles and has been in operation for roughly 2-3 years.

The funding for the equipment and upkeep comes from the Department of Homeland Security.

“We upload the NCIC files once a day and do so through the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, piggybacking off of them,” McFarland said. “We download the database from them into the computer that will alert us of any stolen cars, warrants, etc.

“If we happen to run a plate that belongs to a person that is wanted, the system sends up red flags.”

The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is a computerized index of criminal justice information operated by the FBI.

McFarland said since ALPRs began being used by his department, they’ve specifically assisted in around a dozen apprehensions and investigations.

The key, McFarland believes, is keeping the information current.

“We try to update once a day,” McFarland said. “Once that’s done, the old information is erased from (our) computers. You don’t want to run into a case where you have a stolen car at 8 a.m., and by noon, it’s recovered. You want current information.”

It’s the information the ACLU is taking issue with. The overwhelming majority of plates scanned and turned into the database are from citizens who aren’t raising any red flags on the database.

But their plates, along with a time and location stamp, are being pooled and stored for, potentially, a lengthy mount of time.

The FCSO has its own retention policy. Records are kept for 90 days and only shares this information with law enforcement agencies according to Investigations Chief Marty Buechner.

The state patrol keeps non-hit captures for a 24-hour period before deleting the information. Positive hits are stored for 31 days digitally and kept longer in hard-copy format.

The Bellaire Police Department has only one cruiser equipped with the system.

Like Ferry, the Bellaire PD’s system has been in operation for a few years. It helps from time to time and did assist in locating a stolen vehicle right after it was first installed.

“It is a valuable law enforcement tool,” Bellaire Police Chief Mike Kovalyk noted. “And when subjects see the antennas (and camera) on the back of the cruiser, they take notice, especially if they think they may be wanted for something.”

The ACLU isn’t calling for an outright ban of this technology. But it was looking for state governments to draft legislation to spell out specifically what for and for how long this information can be used, along with who can collect/share in the information gathered.

Hughes may be reached at