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New Canaan Town Council cools on license plate reader

Published 12:56 pm, Saturday, April 6, 2013
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One of the smallest but most debated expenditures in New Canaan came into question yet again, as Town Council members raised privacy concerns in funding a license plate reader for the police at the March 27 Town Council meeting.

The license plate reader is a machine mounted on the front and back of police cars that instantaneously reads and records the license plates of passing vehicles and runs the numbers through various police databases. If the plate matches a plate belonging to someone with an outstanding arrest warrant, expired registration or a number of other offenses, an alarm goes off in the police car's cab, alerting the officer to pull over the car in question.

The machines also record the exact time and location of each car, storing the information databases typically shared across police departments in the region. Police say this function will help them fight crime, but critics say it will track innocent citizens' movements.

The usage of license plate readers has ballooned in recent years, as more and more cities and municipalities acquire them. The Board of Selectmen approved $20,000 in the 2013-14 budget to purchase a reader.

But because the records are held by the police, a public agency, they are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which permits private residents to obtain the information upon request.

The availability of records gave members pause.

Councilman Roger Williams noted that the state is considering a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to delete the data after a certain amount of time. He suggested cutting the money from the budget and reconsidering the item as a special appropriation when, and if, the bill passes.

The state bill in question, HB 6639, would require law enforcement agencies to wipe away the data after 14 days, if it is not being used for an investigation. David McGuire, a staff attorney for the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union, highlighted the concerns of residents in his testimony before the House on April 1.

"These ever-growing databases can be easily used to reconstruct an individual's movements or to identify the vehicles that visit a particular church, mosque, adult bookstore or motel," McGuire. "This amounts to retroactive surveillance of innocent people without a warrant, probable cause or any form of judicial oversight."

Town Councilman Steve Karl agreed that the state should make a decision before the town did.

"I'm torn between the police asking for this as a tool for crime investigation and the privacy issue," Karl said. "I'm weighing toward not supporting it at this time until we figure it out."

"We have to make sure we're not opening up Pandora's box here," Williams said at the meeting.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews