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TMCNet:  Columbia representative's bill would ban Johnsonville's use of license plate readers

[January 09, 2013]

Columbia representative's bill would ban Johnsonville's use of license plate readers

Jan 09, 2013 (The Weekly Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- COLUMBIA/JOHNSONVILLE -- Last week, a bill was prefiled in the South Carolina House that seeks to ban the use of automatic license plate readers by state law enforcement agencies in the state. The Johnsonville Police Department purchased and installed three of the readers in 2012.

The bill was proposed by Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, who said in a phone interview Friday the information the readers collect is not only unprotected but also an invasion of privacy.

"Even beyond that, this information could be given away because there's no protection," he said. "And, if you ask law enforcement what they're doing with it, they don't know. There is nothing to protect it. All they are doing is collecting it." Johnsonville Police Chief Ron Douglas said the readers keep habitual offenders off the road and are in no way used to track drivers.

"We would certainly hope that something like that wouldn't pass," he said. "We're not using this system to track anybody's movements. We could care less about that. We are using it to catch violations of the law." Douglas said that beyond the department's use of the information to track down law violations, the data collected, including the location and time a license plate was scanned, is sent to SLED headquarters in Columbia.

Rutherford said it could be possible for SLED's storage of license plate reader data to be hacked similarly as with the recent hacking of more than 3 million tax records kept by the S.C. Department of Revenue.

He said the readers are deployed on patrol cars in the state's capital but he is further concerned because there is no legislation in place that would restrict law enforcement agencies from placing the readers along interstates and road ways.

"You tell me, who puts a license plate on their car so that the government can track where they went," he said. "They can track your cell phone. You're using a black box in your car; they can track your car. Now, they're using your license plate. They don't need a search warrant to access the information." Douglas said the systems are a vital aid for incidents of significant crime, when the reader's use of location tagging is used.

"The reason that it's good is because ... when there is a major crime, whether it be a murder, rape, or whatever, then we can look in that system," he said. "Then we can perhaps put the person in the area where the crime was committed. It's basically an investigative tool." Douglas said law enforcement had been recording similar information and using it for citations and arrests before the systems were ever in use.

"Before we even got those systems, we were already [doing what the license plate readers do] manually." The automatic license plate reader, which scans every plate that passes a patrol car equipped with one, is exhaustively successful at spotting offenders in a manner that cannot be achieved manually.

Douglas said the readers have long paid for themselves by alerting officers of drivers who are driving under suspension, have outstanding warrants, unpaid fines, and more.

Rep. Lester Brandham, D-Florence, who is Johnsonville's representative in the House, could not be reached by telephone.

Rutherford said he was "stunned" Johnsonville utilizes three of the readers. He said it is too early to gauge the House's support of the bill. Douglas said he has no real concern that the bill would garner much support.

___ (c)2013 The Weekly Observer (Hemingway, S.C.) Visit The Weekly Observer (Hemingway, S.C.) at www2.scnow.com/community/observer Distributed by MCT Information Services

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