South Florida Cities Use License Plate Scanners to Track Drivers and Find Criminals

CORAL GABLES, Florida. – Wherever you drive in South Florida, there’s a good chance you will be monitored, your license plate and movements recorded and stored for future use.

“Everyone’s license plate is scanned and everyone’s license plate is geo-positioned and the time of day is entered into a database,” according to Raul Mas, a resident of Coral Gables.

License plate recognition technology is not new, but in recent years more and more law enforcement agencies are using cameras to track passing people, with the aim of reporting any person linked to criminal activity.

“So in 13 positions that we’ve chosen across town, we have cameras that read license plates,” Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak said.

Coral Gables is just one of several police departments using LPR cameras in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. But not everyone thinks the technological advantages outweigh the privacy risks.

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Coral Gables resident Raul Mas has been against the cameras from the start.

“It’s the equivalent of having a police car following you every day,” he explained.

Mas is currently involved in a lawsuit against the city. He requested recordings for his own vehicle captured by the cameras and was stunned by the dozens of pages of information he received.

“Your daily grind. Go to Publix, go to the dry cleaner,” he said. “I didn’t sign a user agreement with the town of Coral Gables to watch me.”

Among his concerns, learning about the company commissioned to supply the cameras, Vigilant Solutions, stores the data collected for three years. It can share this information with dozens of law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.

“We only have limited information about them and what they do with it and how they use it,” Mas explained. “It should be alarming for everyone. “

Lawyer Caleb Kruckenberg of the New Civil Liberties Alliance represents Mas in his lawsuit against the city.

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“The police have to be able to just say we have a law enforcement objective and then we can browse the database,” Kruckenberg explained. “And when I asked the city, they said, in fact, a policeman might just be curious.”

Kruckenberg has been pushing for surveillance, arguing that if police want this information they must justify why and get a warrant. He pointed out that the police had abused other systems in recent years, such as driver’s license searches.

“They told us that in the past five years at least four different people have been sanctioned for seeking driving records without a valid reason,” he added.

Coral Gables is not alone. The town of Doral has 147 LPR cameras, and also stores the data for 3 years. Miami Beach uses a total of 31 fixed, mobile, and vehicle LPR cameras, but only retains data for one year.

“Right now our policy is three years, and I’m very comfortable with that policy,” said Chief Hudak, who told Local 10 investigative reporter Amy Viteri that his priority was public safety. And access to this technology can make the difference.

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“Because if your child or a child or someone is abducted… I want to go back and see something that might relate to this matter,” Hudak said.

The city used plaque recognition to facilitate arrests. In March, an officer was honored after using license plate readers to help identify a stolen car. A search of the vehicle uncovered a backpack containing 45 stolen credit cards.

Chief Hudak said the department also has safeguards in place to monitor how the system is used. This includes routine audits as well as cameras observing investigators themselves as they access the system for information.

“If I’m not using all the technology at my disposal, it’s critical that someone gets away with a crime,” Hudak said. “Or I can’t hopefully stop a crime.”

In August, a judge ruled against Mas, supporting the city’s argument that the cameras were constitutional. The case is currently on appeal. For Mas, whose own family fled Communist Cuba, it’s a slippery slope. He thinks more people should be worried and wondering what the next step is.

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“If you have the slightest desire to maintain even a semblance of privacy in your life, you should ask yourself these difficult questions,” he said.

Local 10 contacted camera company Vigilant Solutions for more information on how data is shared. At the moment, they have not responded to calls or emails.

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Milton S. Rodgers