Burlington police trying out license plate readers

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BURLINGTON, N.C. -- Burlington police are trying out new technology that is touted as a way to arrest criminals and keep people safer.

One police patrol unit is currently outfitted with an automatic license plate reader system, which constantly scans and records license plate information on a secure, password protected server. Eventually, the department hopes to have two license plate readers in patrol cars and another two in fixed locations.

“The big issue for the public is always, is this Big Brother? Are we trampling on people's constitutional rights? We're not going into people's houses. We're not doing anything in secret. We're capturing license plates that are issued by the government, that are displayed on cars in public roadways, and we're capturing that for all the right reasons,” said Burlington Police Chief Jeffrey Smythe.

Smythe says the reason is to have an extra set of eyes looking for things like stolen cars or kidnapped children. He says officers have already found two stolen license plates in the two weeks they've been testing the system.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union says the technology needs safeguards, because knowing where someone is says a lot about who they are.

“Our concern is that without proper regulation, this technology which we've seen rapidly expand across North Carolina, is very ripe for abuse,” said Mike Meno, ACLU of North Carolina. “All it takes is one rogue officer, one bad seed, to abuse this very personal information.”

Meno says the ACLU agrees there are benefits to using the technology to catch criminals.

“The other 99+ percent of the data shouldn't be stored indefinitely. And if they want to use any of it in court, you really should get a warrant,” said Meno.

Meno says the ACLU of North Carolina is working with state leaders on legislation to regulate the use of automatic license plate readers. The goal is for the General Assembly to take up the issue in January.

Although there are no state regulations for the technology yet, Burlington police plan to delete license plate data after 180 days unless it is part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

“The cameras don't call in sick. They're here 100 percent of the time. They're always on. They're always working. That makes my limited staff that much more effective,” said Smythe. “I don't see how, if you live in Burlington, you can argue with the fact that we're going to be able to keep people safer, and arrest felons because of some equipment in the car that's working when we're on a public roadway. That's a win.”

The Burlington Police Department was recently awarded a $39,126 federal grant to help pay for the license plate readers.