Cameras Used to Capture Vehicle License Plates in Springfield Spark Privacy Debate

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) – High-tech security seems to be the primary line of defense when it comes to fighting crime. This includes recording devices used by law enforcement and now regular people like you and me.

Recently, a company called Flock Security offered the Springfield Police Department the use of license plate readers on a trial basis.

There are 28 cameras stationed around the city taking snapshots of passing cars. The information they capture is used to find stolen vehicles or catch accused criminals.

Some neighborhoods also use the exact same technology to monitor their areas.

But some say it could be an invasion of privacy.

The company behind the system says it is only intended to increase public safety.

“We’re always going to look at new things that might help us be more effective and efficient,” Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams said.

He says that in just a few weeks, the Flock Safety system has scanned millions of plates and assisted in several arrests, even finding stolen vehicles.

“It’s still fairly new, but it seems like encouraging results so far,” he said.

There are 3 private license plate scanners in the Ravenwood South area.

“You can see the cameras. There are signs there to show that anyone who enters will be monitored in some way,” Matt Mawdsley said.

He says the neighborhood association decided to install them after a theft of property.

“We had a neighbor who had someone stop in front of his house. He had security cameras in front of his house. Individual approached, stole lawn ornaments. You can see the person in the video and you can see the vehicle, but it was a profile view. He left. We notified law enforcement, but due to the lack of a license plate capture, we had no idea. So in conjunction with his video and the capture of the license plate in the neighborhood, it might have been more impactful to catch him at that time,” Mawdsley explained.

He says the cameras were installed in March 2020. They have yet to review the data captured by the cameras in his neighborhood. Currently, only a few people on the homeowners’ association board have access to the information.

Currently, the data is not shared with the police department. A formal agreement must be signed for the information to be accessible to agents.

We spoke to a local defense attorney about the footage being used as evidence in a court case.

“They open up a whole host of legal issues and potential legal challenges,” defense attorney Adam Woody said.

He says there might be problems when using the captured data.

“It’s extremely limited in its effectiveness in court anyway, outside of any legal challenges to eligibility,” Woody explained.

The cameras only take photos of license plates and vehicles, not the driver or occupants. Woody says it can be difficult to prove who committed crimes using the vehicle.

Flock Security’s Holly Beilin says the company hasn’t had a lot of legal issues.

“As long as it remains within legal limits, it is investigated as evidence and intended to be used as such,” she said.

However, there is a question of confidentiality.

“It just kind of sounds like a big brother looking at you. You don’t have a legal expectation of privacy, but in reality, nobody wants anyone to watch where they’re going or what they’re doing every moment of the day,” Woody said.

“From a purely legal standpoint, license plates are not individually owned. They belong to the state. On state and municipal roads, there is no expectation of privacy. These cameras are not not placed next to the windows of houses,” Beilin said.

Beilin says the cameras use a sensor activated by the movement of a vehicle, not by a person walking in its line of sight.

She also says the system is designed with checks and balances. Specific criteria such as a case number or other identifying information must be entered in order for police to search the license plate information database.

“For police leaders, this search history is fully verifiable. They can come in and make sure their agents are actually looking for the things they say they are looking for,” Beilin said.

Mawdsley says most if not all of his neighbors are okay with the system and it instills a sense of security.

“Don’t mess with us. We’ll catch you, said Mawdsley.

Chief Williams says he could offer the system to city council for permanent use if it proves useful.

“If we like it, it’s going to make a difference and it’s going to make us more effective and efficient in what we do, keeping people safe, that’s what will be the deciding factor if we’re going to spend our money,” he said.

Software currently in use in Springfield is linked to the National Crime Information Center to track reported stolen vehicles as well as another database that tracks people with outstanding warrants.

Captured images are only stored for a period of 30 days and then permanently deleted.

Beilin says the data is stored virtually protected with security used at the federal level to protect vehicle owner information.

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