Officer Nicholas Alden drives a Medford Police Department patrol car equipped with a license-plate reader, which is located on the roof next to the light bar. - Bob Pennell

Drive-by Scanning

The Medford Police Department will continue to use license-plate readers mounted on patrol cars despite the concerns of civil rights advocates nationally who say the technology is a disturbing invasion of privacy.

While some cities reportedly share information from license-plate scanners with federal agencies, including the National Security Agency, Medford police say their cameras are used only to find stolen cars and wanted suspects, and are not used to spy.

"We do not share any of our information with the feds," said Medford police Deputy Chief Randy Sparacino. "We have our own database that is completely purged every 90 days."

But civil rights and privacy advocates say the scanners are part of a troubling trend. "We are starting to move toward this collect-it-all mentality by law enforcement," said Becky Strauss, the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. "It starts to really flip the presumption that our criminal justice system is built upon, that you're innocent until proven guilty."

The ACLU is working with state lawmakers on legislation that would limit the amount of data the license-plate cameras can collect and store.

Of particular concern to many civil rights advocates is a recent Associated Press story that revealed that law enforcement agencies across the country are sharing the data gathered by the license-plate readers and funneling it into a federal database.

Strauss said the problem with the technology is its passivity. The cameras remain on at all times and read every license plate that passes by the patrol car.

"It's troubling because it allows law enforcement to follow the comings and goings of innocent people," Strauss said. "If they wanted, they can track your movements to and from work and to what political events you attend or even which church you attend."

The debate over widespread police surveillance increased in intensity after it was discovered that the National Security Agency has been monitoring United States citizens' cellphone calls without warrants for several years.

Medford police deploy two patrol cars fitted with the cameras. The cars roll through the streets capturing an image of each license plate they encounter, and the plate is immediately scanned to see whether the car has been stolen or has been connected to any sort of crime.

If a plate "hits" as a stolen car, the screen flashes with the information surrounding the potential crime. The officer will then follow the car and pull it over, Sparacino said.

"But before we can pull over a car that hits, we have to have probable cause," Sparacino said. "This means the officer has to actually run the plate and see if the information gathered from the camera is accurate."

Medford police bought the equipment, with a $30,000 federal grant, from PIPS Technology Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn.

Sparacino said the technology is used sparingly and only to find wanted subjects and stolen cars. It is not used to find suspended drivers or to track random motorists.

It can be used in situations such as bank robberies if a witness is able to get the license plate number of the getaway car. If the car passes by the camera, it will alert the officer that the suspect car is nearby.

Strauss noted that Medford's license-plate camera program is less far-reaching than those of many Oregon agencies. The AP reported that the Portland Police Bureau stores information gathered by the cameras for four years before purging it from the database.

The ACLU is lobbying lawmakers to place strict limitations on how the police can collect license-plate data and how long it can be stored.

"We want these cameras to adhere to as narrow a scope as possible," she said.

The ACLU hopes the bill will be introduced during the next state legislative session.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or

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