DEA wants to scan license plates on I-15 in southern Utah

Published: Thursday, May 17 2012 3:40 p.m. MDT

DEA Task Force remove meth lab from a storage unit at Red-E Storage in Bluffdale in 2005. The DEA and two sheriffs are seeking permission from the Utah legislature to scan the license plates of every care traveling on certain portions of I-15 in Utah to help catch drug traffickers.

Michael Brandy, File, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Every car traveling on I-15 in southwestern Utah would have its license plate scanned under a proposal by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

The DEA and two sheriffs are seeking permission from the state Legislature to set up stationary license plate readers on the interstate in Beaver and Washington counties. The primary purpose, they said, would be to nab drug traffickers, violent offenders and kidnappers.

"I need your blessing to put it on the freeway," Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel told the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.

Lawmakers are hesitant to support the idea, citing mostly privacy issues.

"From a drug perspective, interdiction, I love the sounds of this," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. "From the public relations aspect and government intrusion into the public's life, I hate this. It sounds awful."

Waddoups said the technology would capture information from law-abiding citizens doing legal activities.

"It's not against the law for people from St. George to go down to Nevada to gamble," he said. "But there's a lot of Utahns who would be pretty embarrassed if that information got out."

Gary Newcomb, a DEA supervisory IT specialist from Virginia, told the committee the scanners only capture license plates, direction of travel and GPS coordinates. The information would be stored in a DEA database in Virginia for two years. He said the license plate numbers would not be cross-referenced with other databases.

"I can assure you there is no private information stored in association with these plates," he said.

Newcomb said the DEA uses the technology along the U.S. border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Moving into the country's interior along known drug trafficking routes is the second phase of a three-phase project that would end with scanners being placed along the country's northern border, he said.

Sue Thomas, a DEA supervisory agent in Utah, said marijuana grows on public lands in southern Utah are common as are violent drug traffickers from Nevada and California. She said the license plate reader would allow local police agencies to be alerted when the vehicle of a known trafficker enters the state. It would also be used when Amber Alerts are issued.

"This is for criminal investigations only," she said.

But Marina Lowe, ACLU of Utah legislative and policy counsel, said, "The net that they're casting is much wider than that." The technology has a Big Brother, anti-American feel because it would track people taking business trips or vacations through southern Utah, she said.

"I think it's really troubling from from a privacy perspective," she said.

Waddoups said the scanners might not serve their intended purpose.

"Drug dealers aren't stupid. If they know we've got these set up on I-15, (U.S.) 89 becomes the corridor. It's just that simple. We don't solve much. We just move it," he said.

Noel told the committee several police agencies in Utah already regularly use mobile license plate scanners.

Rep. Richard Greenwood, R-Ogden, said he thinks the public would be surprised to know that and hopes there will be more open discussion about it in the future.

Lawmakers are concerned about storing the data for two years, who would have access to it and how it would be accessed.

"I think there are a lot more questions than answers at this point," said committee co-chairman Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield.

And, he added, "I'll be quite frank with you. A lot of us in Utah don't trust the federal government right now."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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