License plate readers can track car thieves across NJ. Why that worries privacy advocates
As auto thefts spiraled at an alarming rate last year, Gov. Phil Murphy turned to an all-seeing eye for help.
Warning of an "epidemic" of stolen cars, Murphy promised to spend $10 million to expand the use of automated license plate readers, high-tech cameras that can scan thousands of passing plates each minute and quickly search for a specific vehicle.
ALPRs have proliferated across the country in recent years, propelled by advances in computing power. Murphy's announcement means even more of them will be pointed at Garden State roads in 2023. And while some privacy advocates worry about a system that can potentially track unsuspecting citizens wherever they drive, law enforcement leaders say the technology has become an essential part of police work in New Jersey.
"The ALPR program is absolutely vital to law enforcement, not only for in-progress crimes like auto theft, but Amber and Silver alerts, for example," said Morris County Prosecutor Robert Carroll. "These are critically important, time-sensitive activities. They are absolutely necessary to track movement."
Just last month, license plate scanners helped identify the suspect in the attempted firebombing of a Bloomfield synagogue, leading to the arrest of a Clifton man, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Carroll said the devices have helped to foil vehicle thefts and home invasions in his county as well. He's confident there are enough procedural safeguards in place to protect innocent citizens.
Murphy and Attorney General Matthew Platkin announced in April that the state would invest $10 million of federal COVID relief funding in expanding use of the readers. It was a reaction to a wave of auto theft, much of it perpetrated by organized gangs scouring suburban neighborhoods for high-end vehicles.
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“Local police have been working against a rising tide … of auto-related crimes, both break-ins and thefts,” Murphy said. “These incidents understandably have rattled families, and we need to invest in the abilities of local police to more effectively combat these crimes.”
Thieves swiped 15,644 vehicles in 2022, more than 1,000 above the previous year and nearly 4,000 more than in 2020, according to state police data. The surge, which included an increase in home burglaries by criminals looking for key fobs, grabbed headlines last year. But auto theft can be cyclical: 16,471 vehicles were reported stolen as recently as 2012.
The readers and other efforts have helped reverse the trend more recently, Platkin said. In comments published Sunday by NJ.com, he said auto thefts over the last six months were below their five-year average; in February, he said, there were 27% fewer vehicles stolen than in the same month last year.
"What we are doing is working," the attorney general wrote.
'Tens of thousands' of license plate readers
The first license plate scanners were deployed a half-century ago in the U.K. Their sophistication has leaped forward since then, as has their popularity. While a firm count is difficult to find, the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice estimated two years ago that "tens of thousands" of the devices were in use across the U.S. Top-end systems can scan every vehicle traveling on a multi-lane highway. The cameras are mounted permanently on light posts, overpasses and street signs. Police can also deploy portable units for emergencies and special events or outfit patrol vehicles with the scanners.
The systems use custom software to capture, digitize and archive hundreds of plates a minute. Recent iterations can produce stunningly detailed images. Manufacturer Flock Safety claims its Vehicle Fingerprint technology "lets you search by vehicle make, color, type, license plate, state of the license plate, missing plate, covered plate, paper plate and unique vehicle details like roof racks, bumper stickers and more."
State police use such premium systems on major highways across the Garden State. County and municipal departments, meanwhile, are adding more readers on the local level, forming what Carroll called a "coordinated statewide network to interdict crimes."
The state began accepting grant applications last fall for its $10 million fund. But some local departments are already moving forward. In Montville, where Route 80 offers easy access and getaways for would-be thieves, the Morris County town authorized $49,000 to purchase a Packetalk ALPR system in 2021.
Chatham Township recently obtained an $809,000 federal grant to build out a fiber-optic network that will improve communication between surveillance equipment along local streets and monitors at police headquarters.
“The speed and capacity of the new network will bring enhanced safety and real-time data to aid in investigating, responding to, and preventing crime in the region," Mayor Ashley Felice said.
Felice credited U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-Montclair, for obtaining the funds. Sherrill has introduced bipartisan legislation in Congress to provide $150 million to state and local departments to fight auto theft, including money for license plate readers.
Civil liberties advocates concerned
If police agencies are sold on the new technology, its rapid expansion worries privacy and civil liberties advocates.
"The crux of the problem is that automatic license plate readers record every license plate scanned, regardless of whether the license plate matches a plate on the 'hot list,'" the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a 2016 report. "With data over a longer period, with more license plate readers, and more sophisticated analytical tools, automatic license plate readers can tell an intimate story about an innocent New Yorker."
A 2020 white paper authored by the Brennan Center for Justice warned that ALPR use may violate the First and Fourth Amendment rights of private citizens.
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"In light of the wide saturation of license plate readers, it is critical that the use of these devices be accurate, bias-free and protective of established legal values and constitutional rights," the group said.
New state guidelines
Montville Police Chief Andrew Caggiano said his department has patrol vehicles equipped with the readers as well as portable units that can be moved around town. Others are installed permanently at strategic locations. Caggiano declined to say where.
"We try not to tell people," he said. "We know the bad guys check this stuff out, too."
Officers on patrol can log into the system via computers in their cruisers. "When it hits on a plate that's wanted for some reason, it will pop up."
The state Attorney General's Office updated guidelines last year for law enforcement using license plate reader data. The rules now require each department to have a trained ALPR coordinator. They also restrict agencies to searches for plates specifically connected to reports of stolen vehicles, missing persons or Amber and Silver alerts. Vehicles involved in crimes or suspicious activity or with expired registrations can be added to the system's "be on the lookout" list.
The guidelines also decreased the time that data can be stored, from five years to three. After that, it must be deleted. In Montville, access to that information is coordinated by the Police Department's central desk, Caggiano said.
"You can't just go in and look at the data because you want to," the chief said. "There's a process. We have safeguards in place [to ensure] that the people looking at that data are looking at it for the right reasons."
Caggiano said "no one complained" when he conducted a well-attended public meeting last year about his department's efforts to curb auto theft.
"The fact that an ALPR records a license plate does not mean that automatically translates into background data about the vehicle or the owner," he said. "The mere presence of that vehicle at that location at that precise time is only the beginning of the inquiry."
High-speed escape foiled by ALPRs
An arrest in January highlighted the technology's value to investigators, Carroll said.
Authorities arrested a 20-year-old Newark man that month for allegedly breaking into a home in Morris Township while a minor was present and then stealing a Mercedes SL500 Maybach from the property. Police pursued the luxury car, but it escaped after a high-speed chase that reached 90 mph and ended along Route 3 near MetLife Stadium.
The alleged thief was caught a day later. Critical to the investigation, Carroll said, was an ALPR camera that was triggered when the man entered and exited another stolen vehicle outside the Morris County Courthouse in Morristown. He was there to meet with his probation officer for a previous car theft case, the prosecutor said.
The devices have helped authorities catch several would-be auto thieves and burglars in Morris County recently, Carroll said. He would like more of them.
"We have good placement now, but it's not perfect," Carroll said.
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on Morristown Daily Record: NJ police license plate readers spreading, so are privacy concerns