Almanac

Viewpoint - April 23, 2014

Editorial: Town should decide on plate readers

The revelation that license plate cameras were hidden in speed-monitoring trailers along Alpine and Portola roads in Portola Valley without the Town's knowledge once again raises the question of whether the use of such devices should be permitted without a full public debate.

In this case, a San Mateo County Sheriff's Office lieutenant decided to use the cameras in the hope of finding the license plate of a residential burglary suspect who, it was thought, had broken into three homes in late March. The lieutenant did not inform the Town that the cameras were in place for a day and a half, and later explained their purpose at an April 9 Town Council meeting.

When deployed, the cameras capture the license plate numbers of all vehicles that pass in either direction. The lieutenant told the Town Council that after two weeks, the suspect's plate was not found. Data collected by the cameras was sent to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), the agency that lent the devices to the county Sheriff's Office and that routinely keeps such data for one year. NCRIC officials say the data will be available to law enforcement agencies if the requesting agency can demonstrate its importance to an investigation.

All of this took place without the knowledge of the Town Council, and at the April 9 meeting little concern was shown about a contracting police agency, the county Sheriff's Office, deciding on its own to surreptitiously capture the license plate numbers of hundreds of local residents.

While we agree with Town Manager Nick Pegueros' concern about the rash of residential burglaries and his request for the lieutenant to report on how residents could prevent property crime, we hope the manager and the council will discuss how the town should handle deployment of license plate readers in the future. How will residents feel about having their license plate numbers —which easily could be traced to their names, addresses and other personal information — being turned over to a "regional intelligence center" overseen by the Department of Homeland Security and put at the disposal of any police agency that believes they need it?

A similar question came before the Menlo Park City Council last year when the police department requested approval to purchase three license plate cameras that could be mounted on patrol cars, and capture the license plate number of every vehicle they passed when the cruiser was on the road.

The sticking point during that debate was what agency should receive and store the data and for how long. And although the council approved purchase of the relatively inexpensive cameras, it has not yet decided how long captured information should be kept and what agency should have access to it.

The Town Council and Town Manager should make clear to the Sheriff''s office that permission must be obtained before any surveillance equipment is installed to monitor activities in Portola Valley.

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