Politics & Government

Privacy concerns derail license plate reader legislation

In this AP file photo from 2011, a patrol officer demonstrates a license plate recognition device in Springfield, Ill.
In this AP file photo from 2011, a patrol officer demonstrates a license plate recognition device in Springfield, Ill. AP

After a tense discussion about privacy rights and a confusing vote, state lawmakers voted down a bill that would have allowed law enforcement to put license plate readers on state roads.

House Bill 87 has seen several different iterations, including in 2017 when it passed 106-15 in the North Carolina House, but did not receive a single committee hearing when it went over to the Senate. Wrightsville Beach Chief of Police Dan House told lawmakers on Tuesday there is a need for the readers but said there is “literally no area to put a camera in the right-of-way where it would be helpful to us” because all of the roads in his town are state right-of-way.

Fred Baggett, legislative counsel for the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said HB 87 wouldn’t be authorizing the use of the readers “in a new way” since they’ve been used in the state for years. “A lot of places don’t have them, frankly, because they can’t be put in state right-of-way where they do the most good,” Baggett said.

While lawmakers understood the need to use the readers for law enforcement purposes, many raised concerns about the privacy of those residents who don’t commit crimes. Baggett said a previous law passed by the General Assembly in 2015 controls how that data is stored or released, but at some point it must be erased. Even so, that didn’t put the lawmakers’ worries at ease.

“I have a real problem with this. I can’t support this from a liberty perspective,” said Rep. Michael Speciale, a Craven County Republican. “There is a big difference between putting one of these on police cars ... and putting one in place that stays there to track locations of vehicles going by.”

License plate readers don’t track the location of vehicles, but they do scan the license plates of cars that drive by them, thus keeping a record of where those cars were.

The committee members were split when they voted on the bill. After two vote counts, it failed 10-11.

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