Technology used by police in the southeast Missouri town of Cape Girardeau to automatically scan large numbers of license plates is being hailed as an effective crime-fighting tool. But a civil liberties organization thinks deploying such devices on streets and highways constitutes an invasion of privacy.
For for the past seven months, Cape Girardeau police have used a patrol car with high-speed cameras attached to its roof to capture photos of nearly every passing vehicle's license plate.
Each plate number is compared to a national database accessible only by law enforcement. The system sounds an alarm if the plate belongs to someone with an active warrant or criminal history, if the car or plate is suspected stolen, or if the plate is part of a missing child investigation.
The equipment was purchased last year with a grant from the Missouri Police Chiefs Association and the state Office of Homeland Security. A few other Missouri cities use similar systems, including Maryville, which paid for its camera/computer setup with $20,000 provided by the two agencies.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been a vocal opponent of plate-reader technology, alleging in a lawsuit last year that it allows police to unjustly track people who have not committed a crime.
Maryville Public Safety Director Keith Wood said Monday he believes the ACLU's concerns to be unfounded because the system in no way infringes on the rights of law-abiding motorists.
"We're not infringing on anybody," Wood said. "The system is just reading everything as it goes down the road. If nothing hits, nobody's bothered."
Wood added that the technology is not all that new and has been used in other jurisdictions for several years without causing widespread complaints of rights violations.
In Cape Girardeau, which is nearly four times the size of Maryville, plate number recognition technology has been used to scan more than 27,000 license tags.
Cape police say the system has led to arrests in more than 15 cases and helped identify potential suspects and witnesses in the investigation of a deadly nightclub shooting in December.
"Investigatively it can help us in a way like no other (device)," said Cape Girardeau police spokesman Darin Hickey.
In Maryville, the results have not been quite so dramatic, which Wood ascribed to the city's smaller size and lower crime rate. However, the scanning system has identified several vehicles bearing stolen plates.
A similar system used by St. Joseph police has been used to identify stolen automobiles, Wood said.
Cape Girardeau councilman John Voss said the digital plate reader's value in thwarting crime overrides any privacy issues.
"Law-abiding citizens shouldn't have anything to worry about," Voss said. "It will be their friend in a time of need."