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Eyes on the road

Published May 20, 2012 11:25 pm

Highway watchers must be watched
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The fact that members of the Utah Legislature expressed some suspicion about a request to set up some electronic license plate scanners along I-15 in southwest Utah is neither surprising nor altogether wrong.

Viewed strictly on its ethical, constitutional and practical merits, the plan seems harmless enough. But lawmakers are right to ask questions. And they would be well advised to keep a watch on this project, well into the future.

The fact that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, with the support of the Beaver and Washington county sheriffs, wants to be able to record the license plate number of every vehicle that travels up or down that freeway is likely to raise red flags for members of a body that is known to hold little affection for federal control over any part of Utah's territory. This is particularly true when the project is to be run by an agency that is at the forefront of the most futile government effort since the liquor prohibition of the 1920s.

And the fact that the request came along just as the state is dealing with a data breach involving the personal information of hundreds of thousands of Utah residents — reminding everyone of just how vulnerable computer records can be — is an example of really bad timing on the DEA's part.

The agencies asked a legislative committee to approve their plan to put a stationary scanner in place to look at northbound I-15 traffic running through Washington County, and another one to watch southbound vehicles traversing Beaver County. Such gadgets are already in place in California and Texas, the DEA says, and are under consideration for Arizona, too.

Those corridors just happen to be favored by drug traffickers, and the DEA wants to be alerted when a license plate belonging to a particular vehicle, known or suspected of involvement in the drug trade, passes by. Then they can alert law enforcement to stop and hold the occupants. The technology could also be used to hunt down vehicles sought in connection with other crimes, such as kidnapping or robbery.

The plan's acceptability hinges on two legal factors. One is probable cause, as in real evidence that a particular car is being used in the commission of a crime. Without it, such technology can be an unconstitutional fishing expedition.

The other is the expectation of privacy, which doesn't really exist on an Interstate highway, even in Utah.

The DEA should be allowed to proceed with its plan. But lawmakers should retain their healthy suspicion that, without oversight, the devices could be used in ways that violate the privacy rights of those suspected of no crime.