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After Ban Ends, Sunapee Police Among First With Plate Reader



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2018

Sunapee — The Sunapee Police Department soon will become the second law enforcement agency in New Hampshire to outfit a cruiser with a device that will read the license plate of every car as it passes.

Sunapee Police Chief David Cahill said the automated license plate reader will be a helpful tool in locating missing persons, stolen vehicles and cars that could be linked to crimes. But privacy advocates say they aren’t keen on the devices, or the Legislature’s decision in 2016 to end New Hampshire’s ban on them, a move that brought the Granite State into line with the rest of the country.

“It is today’s technology, and it is an opportunity for us to know more about the cars we are encountering and stopping,” Cahill said recently.

Meanwhile, many Vermont departments have used license plate readers for years, but in 2017, at least 18 of them, including Vermont State Police and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, discontinued their use.

They cited expensive maintenance costs and additional reporting requirements mandated by the Vermont Legislature that became challenging to comply with, according to a 2017 report Vermont State Police provided to lawmakers.

Sunapee will purchase one License Plate Recognition system for $12,000. It partly consists of a camera that will be mounted on a cruiser’s light bar. The device will read all passing plates and scan that information against a country-wide database of records of vehicles of interest.

If the vehicle is wanted, for example, it will alert the officer driving the cruiser, Cahill said. The officer will then initiate a traffic stop and run the plate through dispatch, to make sure the license plate reader read the plate correctly.

The device has the ability to process up to 1,500 license plates a minute, and the vast majority of plates scanned will belong to motorists who have done nothing wrong.

That’s why many privacy advocates are wary of the readers, including the ACLU branches in both New Hampshire and Vermont, which don’t support their use.

“We have concerns with how this technology can be abused,” said Devon Chaffee, with the ACLU of New Hampshire.

ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Jay Diaz agreed.

“It is not necessarily very useful and it is too easily abused,” he said. “It lacks oversight.”

New Hampshire police departments are allowed to keep the information for only three minutes before the plate numbers must be “purged” from the system, according to the law. For some privacy advocates, that’s sufficient, including House Finance Chairman Neal Kurk, R-Weare.

The Legislature and police officials in 2016 worked out a compromise to remove the ban on the readers, Kurk said. Part of that compromise was the length of time the data can be kept — three minutes. In comparison, Vermont officials are allowed to store the data for up to 18 months. (If the license plate is a hit in New Hampshire, the information can be kept until the case is prosecuted.)

“None of these people are doing anything illegal. The state has no business of knowing where the citizens are at all times,” Kurk said, citing potential 4th Amendment issues, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. “However, there is an advantage of using the latest technology that helps us enforce law.”

Whether the devices are a good investment for police departments remains to be seen, he said.

“Is it just another expensive toy?” he questioned. “Or is really going to make the public safer at a lower cost?”

New Hampshire’s law comes with a provision that allows it to be repealed in 2027; Vermont’s came with a similar provision, which was extended this session until 2020.

Sunapee hopes to start using the device by the end of the month. Part of the funding for the reader will come from donations, while the rest will come from taxpayers, the chief said. Sunapee is following in the Lincoln Police Department’s footsteps, which became the first department in New Hampshire to deploy the device earlier this month.

The chiefs of at least two other New Hampshire Upper Valley police departments said they won’t be adopting the technology any time soon — if at all.

Although both Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello and Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis said they are fans of the concept, they say the cost isn’t something their budgets can handle right now. Depending on the company, the readers and accompanying software can cost up to $25,000 per cruiser.

“If you could afford it … I think it can be helpful,” Mello said.

Not only can the readers be useful in tracking stolen vehicles and cars linked to crimes, they can identify people with criminal warrants and help locate abducted children or senior citizens who have lost their way.

“The technology is great, especially if you are dealing with amber or silver alerts. There is no way we can take in all of the information passing by us from the license plate,” Dennis said. “There are just other things on my radar at this time.”

New Hampshire State Police Lt. Jeffrey Ladieu said the agency is looking into the technology, but hasn’t made a decision on whether it will purchase them yet.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, agencies including the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Hartford Police Department, jumped on board with the technology several years ago.

But they have since stopped using it.

Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak said his primary reason for not renewing the technology was cost. He said around 2013, his agency received grant funding to purchase the devices, but said the grants didn’t come with additional money for maintenance or replacement.

Given staffing and other service demands, Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten said he isn’t making new readers a priority at this time, and that the town stopped using them before he became police chief in 2015.

Vermont State Police had about a dozen readers before the agency decided to discontinue them in 2017, spokesman Adam Silverman said.

According to VSP’s report to the Legislature in 2017, troopers scanned about 730,760 license plates between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2017.

Of those, 16,200 plates alerted the trooper to some sort of violation.

Cahill, in Sunapee, noted that the information retained by the device doesn’t reveal the owner of the vehicle or the driver, only whether there is an alert set up for that plate. New Hampshire law only allows the device to photograph the plate itself, and not the occupants of the vehicle.

“I think it is an enhancement of safety for police departments and it will assist with our investigations into our amber alerts and silver alerts,” he said.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.