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Erik Burgess, Published June 27 2012

West Fargo police make first license plate scanner bust (with video)

WEST FARGO – It was a first-of-its-kind arrest for the metro area, but it won’t be the last.

West Fargo police recovered a stolen car Tuesday by using a vehicle-mounted camera system that scans license plates as they pass by and checks them against a national database of stolen vehicles – the first time an arrest has been made in the Fargo-Moorhead area with the a license-plate scanner since they were first used in 2010.

Area law enforcement say the devices – which by the end of the year should be available to Fargo police and Cass County deputies, as well – will be a valuable tool that police will use in a variety of ways.

Mike Reitan, the assistant chief in West Fargo, said the system can scan plates as the police vehicle is on the road patrolling.

“The computer system is actively screening all the time,” Reitan said.

A 2012 Dodge Avenger was recovered by police using the system Tuesday after it was reported stolen from a car rental agency at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport in May.

Officers stopped the car and arrested its driver, Margarito Gomez Serena Jr., 38, of Moorhead, on suspicion of possession of a stolen vehicle and driving under revocation. He was taken to the Cass County Jail.

West Fargo Police has two of the systems – called Automated License Plate Readers or ALPR – in place already. West Fargo was the first local agency to have one, back in May 2010.

After scanning, the ALPR software creates an image of the license plate. An officer is then required to check the image to make sure nothing – like a trailer hitch – has obstructed the scan. The computer software is also incapable of determining the state of origin for the license.

“So when an alert goes out, the officer needs to look at the alert,” Reitan said. “In yesterday’s case, the alert said ‘stolen vehicle from Minnesota.’ Then the officer needs to look at the image that’s on the computer and (ask) does it match?”

Sgt. George Vinson of the Fargo Police Department said a scanner will be installed in a Fargo vehicle by the end of the year. A Moorhead police official said the department doesn’t have a system in place but is looking to find funding.

The systems – which consist of four cameras mounted to the front and sides of a squad car – cost about $18,700 each, Reitan said. Fargo, West Fargo and the Cass County Sheriff’s Office all received a federal grant to buy one new system this year.

Police said the scanners can be used for any vehicle that may be of interest to the police, not just to find potentially stolen vehicles. Some cities have used the plate readers to track down drivers who have piled up unpaid parking tickets.

Vinson said the squad car with the camera system could move to an area after a burglary or other criminal mischief has been reported and start recording all the plates that come through the area.

“That’s kind of our goal. Not only to catch stolen vehicles but also to use it as an investigative tool,” Vinson said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518