As car thefts rose at an alarming rate last year, Gov. Phil Murphy turned to an all-seeing eye for help.
Warning of an “epidemic” of stolen cars, Murphy pledged to spend $10 million to expand the use of automatic license plate readers, high-tech cameras that can scan thousands of passing plates every minute and quickly search for a specific vehicle.
ALPRs have proliferated across the country in recent years, fueled by advances in computing power. Murphy’s announcement means even more of them will be pointed at Garden State roads in 2023. And while some privacy advocates worry about a system that could potentially track unsuspecting citizens wherever they drive, law enforcement leaders say that technology has become an essential part of police work in New Jersey.
“The ALPR program is absolutely critical to law enforcement, not only for ongoing crimes like auto theft, but for example, Amber and Silver Alerts,” said Morris County Prosecutor Robert Carroll. “These are critically important, time-sensitive activities. They are absolutely necessary to track movement.”
Just last month, license plate scanners helped identify the suspect in the attempted firebombing of a Bloomfield synagogue, leading to the arrest of a Clifton man, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Carroll said the devices have also helped prevent vehicle thefts and home invasions in his county. He is confident that there are enough procedural safeguards in place to protect innocent citizens.
Murphy and Attorney General Matthew Platkin announced in April that the state would invest $10 million in federal COVID relief funding into expanding use of the readers. It was a response to a wave of car thefts, much of it committed by organized gangs scouring suburban neighborhoods for high-end vehicles.
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“Local police have been working against a rising tide … of auto-related crimes, both burglaries and thefts,” Murphy said. “These incidents have understandably shaken families and we need to invest in the capabilities of local policing to more effectively tackle these crimes.”
Thieves swiped 15,644 vehicles in 2022, more than 1,000 more than the previous year and nearly 4,000 more than in 2020, according to state police data. The rise, which included an increase in home burglaries by criminals looking for key fobs, grabbed headlines last year. But car theft can be cyclical: 16,471 vehicles were reported stolen as recently as 2012.
The readers and other efforts have helped reverse the trend recently, Platkin said. In comments published Sunday by NJ.com, he said car thefts over the past six months were below their five-year average; in February, he said, 27% fewer vehicles were stolen than in the same month last year.
“What we’re doing is working,” the attorney general wrote.
‘Tens of thousands’ of license plate readers
The first number plate scanners were deployed half a century ago in Great Britain. Their sophistication has grown since then, as has their popularity. While a firm count is hard to come by, the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice estimated two years ago that “tens of thousands” of the devices were in use across the U.S. Top-end systems can scan any vehicle traveling on a multi-lane highway . The cameras are permanently mounted on light poles, overpasses and street signs. Police can also deploy portable devices for emergencies and special events or equip patrol vehicles with the scanners.
The systems use custom software to capture, digitize and archive hundreds of records per minute. Recent iterations can produce stunningly detailed images. Manufacturer Flock Safety claims its Vehicle Fingerprint technology “lets you search by vehicle make, color, type, license plate, license plate condition, missing plate, covered plate, paper plate and unique vehicle details like roof racks, bumper stickers and more.”
State police use such premium systems on major highways across the Garden State. County and municipal departments, meanwhile, are adding more readers at the local level, forming what Carroll called a “coordinated statewide network to interdict crimes.”
The state began accepting grant applications last fall for its $10 million fund. But some local branches are already on the way. In Montville, where Route 80 offers easy access and escape for would-be thieves, the Morris County town approved $49,000 to purchase a Packetalk ALPR system in 2021.
Chatham Township recently secured an $809,000 federal grant to build a fiber optic network that will improve communications between surveillance equipment along local streets and monitors at police headquarters.
“The speed and capacity of the new network will bring improved security and real-time data to help investigate, respond to and prevent crime in the region,” said Mayor Ashley Felice.
Felice credited U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-Montclair, for receiving the funds. Sherrill has introduced bipartisan legislation in Congress to give $150 million to state and local departments to fight auto theft, including money for license plate readers.
Affected civil liberties
If police agencies are sold on the new technology, its rapid expansion worries privacy and civil liberties.
“The crux of the problem is that automatic license plate readers record every license plate scanned, regardless of whether the license plate matches a plate on the ‘hot list,'” the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a 2016 report. “With data over a long period of time , with more license plate readers and more sophisticated analytical tools, automatic license plate readers can tell an intimate story about an innocent New Yorker.”
A 2020 white paper authored by the Brennan Center for Justice warned that ALPR use could violate the First and Fourth Amendment rights of private citizens.
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“In light of the widespread saturation of license plate readers, it is critical that the use of these devices be accurate, without bias, and protect established legal values and constitutional rights,” the group said.
New government guidelines
Montville Police Chief Andrew Caggiano said his department has patrol vehicles equipped with the readers as well as portable devices that can be moved around the city. Others are permanently installed in strategic locations. Caggiano declined to say where.
“We try not to tell people,” he said. “We know the bad guys are checking this out too.”
Officers on patrol can log into the system via computers in their cruisers. “When it hits a plate that is wanted for some reason, it will appear.”
The state Attorney General’s Office last year updated guidelines for law enforcement using license plate reader data. The regulations now require each department to have a trained ALPR coordinator. They also limit agencies to searching for plates specifically associated with stolen vehicle reports, missing persons or Amber and Silver alerts. Vehicles involved in crime or suspicious activity or with expired registrations can be added to the system’s “watch” list.
The guidelines also reduced the time data can be kept from five years to three. It must then be deleted. In Montville, access to that information is coordinated by the police department’s central desk, Caggiano said.
“You can’t just go in and look at the data because you want to,” the chief said. “There is a process. We have safeguards in place [to ensure] that the people who are looking at this data are looking at it for the right reasons.”
Caggiano said “no one complained” when he held a well-attended public meeting last year about his department’s efforts to curb car theft.
“The fact that an ALPR records a license plate does not automatically translate into background data about the vehicle or the owner,” he said. “The mere presence of that vehicle at that location at that precise time is only the beginning of the investigation.”
High speed escape prevented by ALPRs
An arrest in January highlighted the technology’s value to investigators, Carroll said.
Authorities arrested a 20-year-old Newark man that month for allegedly breaking into a Morris Township home while a minor was present and then stealing a Mercedes SL500 Maybach from the property. Police pursued the luxury car, but it got away after a high-speed chase that reached 90 mph and ended along Route 3 near MetLife Stadium.
The suspected thief was caught a day later. Critical to the investigation, Carroll said, was an ALPR camera that was triggered as the man got in and out of another stolen vehicle outside the Morris County Courthouse in Morristown. He was there to meet with his probation officer for a previous car theft case, the prosecutor said.
The devices have helped authorities catch several would-be car thieves and burglars in Morris County recently, Carroll said. He would like to have more of them.
“We have a good location now, but it’s not perfect,” Carroll said.
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, subscribe or activate your digital account today.