License plate scanner use questioned by lawmaker

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2013 11:43 p.m. MST

Motorists drive on I-15 in Utah County Friday, Nov. 2, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — License plate scanners in widespread use by law enforcement agencies hold the potential for misuse by divorce lawyers or police who use information on a motorist's whereabouts as fodder for an "interrogation game," a Utah legislator said Friday.

Utah has no law governing the use, collection or lifespan of tracking data on motorists who have done no wrong, said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. He plans to introduce legislation in January to make clear the information cannot be kept in a databank longer than six months or subpoenaed in divorce or other civil litigation.

"On the one hand, this technology is cool, but it's also creepy," Weiler said Friday. "It's that big-brother aspect."

License plate readers are cameras used by police to get information about a person or a vehicle from a car's license plate. Some of them use special software to run the license plate number through national criminal databases to check for outstanding warrants.

Police said they've recovered stolen vehicles using license plate readers and can immediately flag unregistered or uninsured motorists. Utah sheriffs have told legislators that scanner information kept for long periods can help solve homicides or kidnappings.

Law enforcement agencies in Utah are keeping data for up to two years, Weiler said

The ACLU said police can't justify keeping data longer than 12 hours.

"These readers give police and other agencies the ability to monitor people's movement — where they were, where they are going, without any reason to believe people are doing anything illegal," said John Mejia, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. "Without clear guidelines, there's potential for abuse."

Weiler said police could use the information to wrongly implicate a person in a crime long after the fact, leaving a suspect without a defense.

"Years later they could ask, 'Where were you driving?' " he said. "You say, 'I have no idea. That was a year and a half ago.' That's where it gets creepy."

Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel thinks the legislation is unnecessary. The information should be available to police for as long as needed. His county doesn't have any license plate readers, but he said they would be useful on southern Utah highways to catch murderers, rapist, kidnappers and drug smugglers.

"It's like any tool out there: If it's abused, our rights are going to be violated," Noel said. "But you have to have some trust in law enforcement to do the right thing."

Contributing: Brady McCombs, Associated Press

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