New Hampshire axes license plate reader bill

Legislation would have enabled police to reap benefits of technology


Jan. 24--New Hampshire lawmakers have crushed a bill that would have enabled police to reap the benefits of Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs).

House Bill 675 was defeated earlier this month by a 250-97 vote on the House floor, and then immediately banned from reconsideration for the remainder of New Hampshire's current legislative session, which runs through June. Bill opponents, which included Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, were concerned over the data retention and privacy issues with the legislation.

The initial version of HB 675 stated that data would only be kept in a police cruiser for a maximum of two hours after the end of an officer's shift, unless the plate number was part of an arrest or other law enforcement issue. The bill was then amended, reducing that time frame to three minutes.

Police representatives, however, wouldn't commit to permanently sticking to that retention policy in the future. That didn't sit well with some legislators, and Rep. Stephen Shurtleff, D-Penacook, HB 675's sponsor, told Government Technology it was the sticking point that turned the tide against the bill.

"One of the Republicans that spoke against the bill ... asked the chiefs to promise that they would not come back and ask that the three minutes be changed to three hours or three days at any time," Shurtleff said. "They didn't want to commit to that, not knowing what the future might bring."

In an email to Government Technology, Kurk said he may have supported the bill had law enforcement groups committed to use ALPRs only to help apprehend known criminals and not used to collect information on citizens for later use. But he agreed with Shurtleff that the data retention issue was a major factor why the legislation failed.

"The police chiefs made it clear they would, within three years, push to extend the three minutes, and that effectively would turn a useful law enforcement tool into a mechanism for state surveillance of innocent civilians without a warrant," Kurk wrote.

Had the bill passed, HB 675 would have enabled law enforcement officers to use APLRs to potentially identify stolen vehicles, people with outstanding warrants, and assist in criminal investigations. In addition, local jurisdictions in New Hampshire would have to vote to allow their police departments to deploy the devices. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state only permits collection of license plate information at toll booths and bridges.

Ongoing Controversy

A number of states have had success using the readers as both a crime deterrent and aid for law enforcement investigations. For example, in 2008, when the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had only 12 vehicles equipped with ALPRs, Charlie Beck, now chief of police, said license plate readers helped recover "four to five times" the number of stolen vehicles that officers would be able to locate without the devices.

Back in 1996, Pennsylvania had approximately 53,000 auto thefts. But after installing ALPRs on 13 squad cars, that number was down to 28,000 in 2007. Seattle uses the technology on cameras to assist in calculating travel times for commuters.

Despite their usefulness, privacy concerns about the devices still exist, and not just in New Hampshire. Last year, the ACLU of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department over the data collected from ALPRs.

As for New Hampshire, however, Shurtleff maintained that his bill was well written and felt the National Security Agency's massive data leak by Edward Snowden likely had an impact on HB 675's demise.

"Safeguards were put in to protect people -- three minutes to purge records, if an officer got a [match] they had to contact dispatch and see if the occupants were still wanted before making a [traffic] stop," Shurtleff said. "So I think the final bill was a good one. It was the right bill, but the wrong time."

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