By Jean Lotus
The American Civil Liberties Union has included Forest Park in its study of the use by police of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) cameras. The ACLU sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Forest Park Police Department, Oct. 21, seeking information about the department's new ALPR.
The civil liberties group is compiling information about plate-capturing camera data from around the country. According to "You are being tracked," a report published in July, "Tens of thousands of license plate readers are now deployed throughout the United States." The ACLU worries that for every time a plate reader makes a "hit" and matches the plate of a vehicle on a boot list or reported stolen, the machines capture and store millions of other license plates of law-abiding people.
"[License plate cameras] are capturing drivers' locations outside church, the doctor's office and school, giving law enforcement and private companies the ability to build detailed pictures of our lives," the report said.
Forest Park received its ALPR in May of this year, purchased with a grant from one of the collection agencies that process Forest Park traffic tickets, said police Lt. Steve Weiler, who didn't specify which company that was, but the village has a contract with Municipal Collection Services Inc., in Palos Heights, which offers license plate recognition services.
Weiler said the village paid about a third of the cost for the reader cameras, which run around $15,000. The collection agency paid $10,000. The machines were mounted in May on police vehicle Unit 637, a 2007 Ford Explorer.
The cameras on Unit 637 are used to find parked vehicles on the village "boot list" said Officer Francis Lane, who is primarily responsible for the boot list patrol.
The vehicle is only used during the day, he said.
In a demonstration provided to the Forest Park Review, Lane drove Unit 637 through the streets of Forest Park as well as the parking lots at the Forest Park Mall and the CTA Blue Line terminal parking.
The two cameras on the roof's right and left side send a signal to a laptop computer mounted on the dashboard of the police vehicle. The laptop is loaded daily with data from a zip drive containing a list of all the registered vehicles and their owners on the village's boot list. Boot list data from other municipalities is not included, Lane said.
"It's amazing how many vehicles are on the boot list," Lane said. Many of the cars on the Forest Park boot list are registered in other towns, like Berwyn, Oak Park or River Forest. Police cannot cross municipal boundaries to boot those vehicles but can boot them if they enter Forest Park.
Lane also loads a daily license plate list from the National Crime Information Center, which provides a computerized index of vehicle plate numbers on stolen cars, and cars whose owners have driver's licenses tagged by the state of Illinois and the NCIC for suspended or revoked licenses.
How do vehicles end up on the boot list? Lane said car owners must have racked up at least five parking tickets. For each ticket, vehicle owners receive at least five letters with offers of court dates to pay or dispute the ticket. If the driver does not respond, they are found liable for the ticket by default. After that, the violation is turned over to a collection agency, Lane said. It takes eight or nine months after receiving five or more tickets for a vehicle to be "bootable."
"People aren't happy to get a boot on their car," Lane said. "But they're not surprised, usually. It's not like we haven't tried to contact you."
Vehicles can only be booted on the public right of way, Lane said. If he passes a boot-worthy car parked on a parking pad or other private property, he cannot boot the car.
The cameras' infrared scanners read license plates and compare the numbers to lists within the computer using an interface called Jet Hippo, which Lane demonstrated. In one afternoon, Lane passed over 300 cars, all of which were scanned into the machine.
The department told the ACLU a total of 66,707 plate reads had been scanned between May and the end of October. Fifty-two "hits" were recorded.
Sometimes the computer misinterprets a number. As Lane drove in the CTA lot last week, a buzzer sounded on the laptop and a screen popped up indicating a car had been stolen. Lane re-entered the license number manually and the vehicle came back "clear."
"Sometimes it drives me crazy hitting on plates that don't concern me," he said.
The computer system also provides a ticket-printing machine, which Lane uses when vehicles are not on the boot list but have other violations, such as expired license plates.
As he wrote a $25 ticket in the mall parking lot for an expired license plate, he said, "I think of it as a gentle reminder that there's something wrong and you need to take care of it."
Other municipalities use the ALPR technology to patrol moving vehicles. River Forest police recently arrested a man who passed a squad car with an ALPR camera which flagged his vehicle as reported "stolen." The man was charged with not returning a rental car that had been reported to police.
According to sales pamphlets for the technology prepared by Motorola, an ALPR unit with an added GPS can "monitor known felons and other persons of interest," with Back Office System Server (BOSS) software. This software collects and archives license plates on non-violators to "organize and archive data compiled from mobile and fixed-site ALPR deployments." The sales brochure gives an example of an officer "quietly noting the time and location of a suspicious vehicle when it passes," and then crosschecking that information with the BOSS software.
This technology has not yet been employed in Forest Park, Lane said.
What happens in Forest Park to the thousands of non-violating license plate numbers scanned by the ALPR camera? Lane said the computer dumps the stored plates when the system is turned off. He demonstrated by turning off the machine and then repowering it, showing no plates listed.
Weiler said Forest Park police regularly run plates manually in their computers without any "probable cause" or "reasonable suspicion." If a driver comes up as having a revoked or suspended license, Weiler said officers will pull the car over and make an arrest.
"In these traffic stops, the officers are doing what they're supposed to be doing, looking for criminals and being proactive, as opposed to reactive." He said the practice of running license plates without probable cause has, "held up in court again and again."
The ACLU report encourages police departments to develop policies for using the license-plate readers.
"When police departments lack policies limiting access to license plate data and monitoring its use, abuse of the technology can occur." The ACLU in Illinois has received FOIA responses from only a handful of Illinois municipalities, including Evanston, Burbank, Bellwood, Hanover Park, Lemont, Oak Forest, Streamwood, Chicago and Springfield.
Lane said he considered the plate reader a tool to help enforce the law.
"You don't have any expectation of privacy on a public street," Lane said. "The license plates are issued by the state of Illinois and displayed on the car for everybody to see."
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