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Published September 03 2012

Public can access scanned license plate data

WEST FARGO – West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern says he doesn’t remember exactly what he was doing when his Dodge pickup was parked near Main Avenue and Center Street at 5:20 p.m. on July 9.

But a camera system mounted to a police car confirms he was there. And, with the minimal effort it takes to file an open records request, that information can be yours.

Under North Dakota law, data collected by automated license plate readers used by police is considered public information, just as it is in Minnesota.

West Fargo police have deployed the readers on two patrol cars since 2010. The Cass County Sheriff’s Office also began using a reader within the past month, and Fargo police expect to have one by the end of the year.

The camera system captures images of license plates as cars pass by and checks them against a national crime information database. West Fargo police store the data for 60 days before it’s purged, though data deemed important to an investigation can be flagged and saved for longer, Assistant Chief Mike Reitan said.

So far, the system has helped West Fargo police recover two stolen vehicles and debunk a theft suspect’s alibi, Reitan said.

But not everyone is a fan of the technology.

Robert Doody, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota and South Dakota, said the readers seem like a good idea at first blush.

“However, these are essentially warrantless tracking tools and can track everybody,” he said. “And the sensitive data that can come across from tracking people’s movements can be quite harmful.”

Last month in Minnesota, the state’s Criminal and Juvenile Information Task Force voted to recommend that the Legislature classify the data as “private,” meaning only the subject can request it from police, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

Doody wasn’t aware of any efforts to privatize the data in North Dakota.

West Fargo Lt. Duane Sall said The Forum’s recent request for license plate data was the first the department had received.

The newspaper requested the scanned license plate data for Mattern, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker’s city-issued vehicle and Forum editor Matthew Von Pinnon, a West Fargo resident.

In the 60 days ending Aug. 27, the readers scanned Mattern’s license plate only twice – once at City Hall – and Von Pinnon’s plate only once, on Seventh Avenue East near West Fargo High School. Walaker’s city plate wasn’t scanned at all, despite what he said were occasional trips into West Fargo during that time.

On average, the cameras mounted to the two West Fargo police cars scan about 2,000 plates per day, Sall said. That equates to about 120,000 license plate images being stored at any given time.

Mattern said he hasn’t heard complaints or concerns from residents about the license plate readers.

“I totally understand if some people feel that some of their freedoms are taken away,” he said. “But yet on the other hand, the positive thing, if it’s going to stop a criminal or help find a criminal, I’m all for that.”

In addition to identifying stolen vehicles, the reader system is useful at major crime scenes, Reitan said. Instead of officers trying to write down all of the plate numbers in an area, a patrol officer with a reader can simply drive through the area, he said.

In the theft case, Reitan said the suspect believed he had a strong alibi, but when detectives checked his vehicle against the database, it showed his vehicle was in the area of the theft around the time it happened.

“In this case, it was the (reader) as our witness,” he said.

Doody said the ACLU is concerned about the data’s effects on privacy and due process.

“The fact that it’s public makes it more concerning, because now someone can track you and see what doctor you go to. They can track and see if you’re going to counseling. What about if you’re going to AA meetings?” he said. “There’s these possibilities of overlap with this new criminal technology that need to be considered in the dawn of the digital age.”

West Fargo, Fargo and Cass County all received a federal grant to buy one new reader system this year, at a cost of about $18,700 each. Adding more will likely depend on future grant funding, sheriff’s Capt. Rick Majerus said.

“They’re so cost-prohibitive. It’d be great to have one on every car,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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