New Law Enforcement Tool Helps Find Suspects, Raises Privacy Concerns

Wes Pittman serves as a Panama City injury attorney, working in the civil law system to help victims obtain vital compensation. While the civil system is distinct from the criminal courts, evidence from criminal investigations can be an important part of a civil case, allowing for early settlement or helping support the case at trial if necessary. The police can also be a terrific partner, especially when they are able to locate a wrongdoer who fled both criminal and civil prosecution.

The News Herald is covering a new tool in the arsenal of the Panama City Police Department ("PCD"). The Automated License Plate Recognition ("LPR") is aimed at catching suspects whose vehicles are on the Department's "hot list," such as a plate tied to an Amber Alert, a vehicle previously reported stolen, or someone who violated a protection order. As officials continue to develop the tool and the information set used, the LPR could even help in a homicide investigation.

Only one PCD patrol car currently has the LPR set-up, carrying three cameras that capture the license plates of other vehicles and notes the time, date, and location of each photograph. The system then runs the tags and compares them to the hot list. If it spots a match, it sends an alert to the officer's laptop, and he or she can then respond just as if the officer visually noticed the match. The LPR can run between 600 and 1,000 per shift, much more than can be done manually and with a longer reference list than an officer's memory can hold. Information is also downloaded to the PCD servers daily.

The PCD system, which cost just over $19,000, was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Panama City Beach's Police Department is considering applying for a similar grant. An LPR system is also used by the Florida Highway Patrol, which has six cameras across the state, including one in the Tallahassee region. Officials note the system is imperfect – a user-entry error could result in a mistaken alert, for example, but they note that the officers do check to verify probable cause before making a stop. Further, the hot list may not have the most recent information since the data is not updated in real-time. As a spokesperson speaking about the system summarized, the system is still ultimately reliant on human intervention.

LPR systems do have their critics. Policy remains a bit undecided as to storage of the information, some of which is kept indefinitely while portions are deleted every four months. Officers suggest this helps solve crimes and is not misused, but privacy advocates worry about a Big Brother-style system. Currently, data from the system is public, and anyone can request information about a plate number. Critics worry that this could allow someone to track another private citizen's movement. Even some police officials feel the data goes too far in cataloguing the movements of innocent, law-abiding citizens. An American Civil Liberties Union representative referred to the system as "all-seeing police eye that records everything" in his discussion with the Herald. Of course, cost is another concern.

LPR technology holds some promises for helping both police and victims in the pursuit of justice. It will take time to fine-tune the use of the system to help limit privacy concerns, an important issue to our legal team and the rest of our community. While these issues must be addressed, it is good to know that technology is helping move justice forward.

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