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Utah sheriffs back away from plan to scan license plates

Published June 13, 2012 2:46 pm

An outcry over privacy rights derails use of scanners to track drug smugglers along I-15.
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Two federally donated license plate scanners meant to track drug trafficking won't be installed on Interstate 15 in southwest Utah.

The Beaver County sheriff decided that implementing the new technology wasn't worth a community battle over perceived civil rights violations.

The Washington County sheriff wants more to study the issue.

Both sheriffs were slated to testify in favor of the scanners — to be donated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — at a June 20 meeting of the Utah Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.

But in the face of public opposition, the law officers will not be attending the meeting, and they have no immediate intentions to install the scanners.

"I just said to heck with it," Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel said Tuesday. While some citizens and legislators liked the idea of the scanners, many others, including members of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, raised concerns that they violated citizens' right to privacy, Noel said.

Washington County Undersheriff Bart Bailey,speaking on behalf of Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher, said the sheriff is not interested in pursing the licence plate scanners at this time. Bailey said the sheriff wanted more time to look into the proposal.

The initial plan was for one scanner to capture the license plates of vehicles traveling south on I-15 in Beaver County where I-70 converges. A second scanner would record the plates of northbound drivers in Washington County. I-15 and I-70 are both major drug trafficking corridors, according to police.

The devices were intended to protect communities against crime, Noel said, but talk of privacy rights violations got the issue "totally twisted around" and "people went bananas over it." He said that fighting people about the scanners is no longer worth it to him.

"It is to capture criminals only, it doesn't violate any normal citizen's rights. It is just a shame," Noel said, adding that he asked the DEA not to give them the equipment. "The citizens lose out. All we wanted it for was to pick up hardened criminals off the freeway."

DEA scanners are installed in several other states, including California and Texas. Aside from capturing those involved in drug cartels, a DEA representative previously described how the scanners also could be used to catch kidnappers and violent criminals.

Noel said every license plate would be captured as they passed the designated areas. If the plate number was wanted in connection with a kidnapping or some major crime, it would automatically alert dispatchers in that area. The scanners would capture only the license plate, the GPS coordinates and the direction of travel.

The picture of the plate would remain in a database in Virginia for two years. Noel noted that storing the pictures allows police to investigate crimes that occurred months earlier.

"There is no information about [the car]," he said, "it is just a picture of a plate."

The sheriff noted that in his rural county, there is typically only a single officer on duty, and he gets complaints from citizens about not having enough police presence for local crimes.

They "finally get a piece of technology" to increase enforcement and "the people are against it," Noel said with evident frustration.

The DEA did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the issue.

cimaron@sltrib.com

Twitter: @CimCity