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."
The license plate reader uses on-vehicle infrared cameras to capture an image of the license plate, and then runs the plate number against a Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) database of license plates registered in Massachusetts.
In addition to expired registrations and warrants against the driver, the system is able to check for other vehicle law violations, including not having car insurance, according to Pattullo.
"For anyone who has been in an accident with an uninsured vehicle, they know how much of a hassle it is," said Pattullo. "The advantage is, really, taking uninsured motorists off the street. We are providing that service to the community."
Driving down Main Street, a cruiser with the camera would be able to capture a majority of the license plates it passes, including cars parked on either side of the road and vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. If the cruiser is passing through a parking lot, every parked vehicle can be checked with ease, according to Pattullo.
Though there isn't support built into the system yet, a parking violation database could be added to the system to also check for unpaid parking tickets and other violations, Pattullo said.
Pictures, dates and locations recorded with the system would be automatically purged from the system's memory over time, according to Pattullo. Though he couldn't say how long it would take, it is estimated that the system would have only enough memory to keep records for around a week - under current technology.
Automatically running all license plates visible on the road is legal, said Pattullo.
"The courts have decided that there is no expectation of privacy in the display of your license plate," said Pattullo. "As citizens, you have the right to look at any license plate, just like any police officer would."
As it stands, the system is only capable of checking registered Massachusetts drivers. An update for other states could be provided at a later time, according to Pattullo.