Scanner snaps plates: New tool makes road checks easy

By Ramsey Al-Rikabi
Times Herald-Record
December 12, 2005

Monroe – State Trooper Matthew Forestire pulls his cruiser onto Route 17
and drives west. He’s on the road only seconds when he pulls over a
school bus for an expired license plate.

How did he know so fast that the plate was no good?

He knows because a computer told him so.

He’s got a new gadget in his cruiser that the New York State Police are
testing out: A license plate scanner that checks almost every plate near
it, telling the trooper if the plate is suspended, expired or reported
stolen.

So instead of a trooper “running” your plate by calling it in, the
scanner is like a thousand eyes, a thousand call-ins, a thousand checked
plates – all with two cameras and a computer.

“The manufacturer says that bad weather shouldn’t affect it,” says
Forestire, whose cruiser has one of about 13 plate scanners being test
around the state. “If I can read the license plate, it can read the
license plate.”

It works like this: Two infrared cameras mounted on top of the cruiser
snap digital photos of anything that looks like a license plate, whether
it’s stuck to a car cruising down Interstate 84 or parked at Woodbury
Common.

The company that makes it, Remington Elsag Law Enforcement Systems, says
it has a 90 percent hit rate at 150 mph closing speed – that is, two cars
passing each other at 75 mph.

It reads the plate, checks it against a Department of Motor Vehicles
database, and lets the trooper know if anything is amiss.

State police here have been using the Mobile Plate Hunter 900, as the
system is called, for about a month with mostly good results.

Sometimes it doesn’t pick up dirty plates, like the one on a Chevrolet
that just moved out of Forestire’s lane.

And it only picked up two plates when Forestire passed four cars driving
close together.

And sometimes it picks up things that aren’t license plates, like the
“UCKI” of “Trucking” on the back of a rig, or campaign signs along the
road.

And this, from Lt. Pierce Gallagher of the Monroe barracks: “Sometimes it
gives you more work than you can handle.”

For the most part though, troopers here and officials at state police
headquarters in Albany are pleased with the scanners, which cost between
$18,000 and $19,000 each.

That comes out to about $234,000 to $247,000 total, although state police
have a $921,250 contract with the company through 2010.

“It has great potential,” said Inspector Steve Smith, a field commander
in Albany, “especially for Amber Alerts,” when troopers can input the
specific license plate they’re looking for.

“If we like them, we’ll buy more,” he said of the Remington Elsag
scanners, which agencies in California, Arizona, Ohio and Canada are also
using.

The plate scanning system can also save the data it picks up. And what is
done with that data is a concern for privacy advocates.

“It’s always a question, when the government collects information on
individuals: Is there an administrative procedure to govern how the
information is collected, how it’s stored, and what happens to it?” said
Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information
Center in Washington, DC.

State police say they’re not saving license plate data, for now at least.

“It’s not an intelligence gathering tool,” said Maj. John Melville,
commander of Troop F in Middletown. “It’s more for enforcement.”

Copyright Orange County Publications

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