Andover Townsman, Andover, MA


March 8, 2012

Drivers beware: Police camera would run license plates automatically

Andover police want to buy an $18,000 camera system that would make it more difficult to drive through town illegally.

In this year's Capital Improvement Plan, the town's police department has asked for $18,000 for a single automatic license plate reader system. The system, which would be installed on a police traffic control cruiser, would record license plate numbers on vehicles it passes, with the date, time and the exact global position of the cruiser at the time, according to Police Chief Brian Pattullo.

The license plate would be checked for a number of things typically run by police manually during traffic stops.

"If we are driving on a street and just picked up [a] license plate, and found that this license plate is expired or that person is wanted on a warrant, it would alert the officer," said Pattullo. "If that [vehicle] is stolen, or it is an unregistered or uninsured plate, then the officer takes action."

The idea has drawn some criticism. A local attorney emailed several town officials — including every selectman — warning about the use of the technology being unconstitutional. In the email, the attorney suggested events captured with the cameras, such as "if one drives to CVS in the middle of the night to purchase cough medicine for an ailing child," are "recorded and becomes a matter of public record, open to discovery."

This is not the case, according to Pattullo.

"It is not going to show me that Citizen X was at CVS at 10 p.m. at night, unless I need a reason to query that information, and, 'I am looking for a license plate for Citizen X. Show me where that plate [was],'" said Pattullo. "The only way to retrieve that particular information is if you had the number to do the match."

High-enough security clearance would also be needed. Even then, "stagnant monitoring" of where and when people travel would require a search warrant for each individual, according to Pattullo. "This system does not do that."

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