The Texas state Senate voted Monday to give federal, state and local authorities the ability to track and identify every passing vehicle on state highways. The provision calling for “automatic license plate identification cameras” was slipped into the Senate version of the must-pass Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) reauthorization bill. The provision was not part of the bill introduced in the state House of Representatives, whose less sympathetic members will have to accept or reject the entire 1274-page compromise hammered out by a conference committee. The House voted yesterday to instruct its conferees to insist that the House-passed ban on red light cameras remain in the final text.
The Senate’s surveillance camera proposal promises taxpayer funds to the same private companies that operate photo radar and red light camera systems threatened by the House bill. License plate readers use the same basic technology as automated ticketing machines. Instead of tracking, for example, only those who exceed a certain speed threshold, the plate readers will store a video image of the front passenger compartment and rear license plate of every single passing vehicle. Optical character recognition software identifies the registered vehicle owner and allows for easy indexing of the time and location of travel for each person identified using the highway.
The Senate-passed bill gives police broad authority for the first time to use this information to prosecute any state or federal crime, as long as it is not a traffic violation “punishable by fine only.” The bill also specifies that the cameras may be used to find suspects in amber alert cases, missing senior citizens and those accused of killing a police officer. The capability to search for suspects is exactly what troubles one civil rights group.
“Proponents will argue the readers are looking for bad guys — drug smugglers and other criminals — but the cameras cannot distinguish between your SUV and a drug smuggler’s SUV,” the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. “The readers are technology and as with any technology, they have a tendency to make errors. In this case, the implications are traffic stops of drivers misidentified as suspects wanted for serious crimes.”
In some cases, those errors can turn deadly. On May 19, 2008 a Northumbria, UK police officer received an Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) alert about a passing Renault Megane automobile. Believing the vehicle could be driven by a dangerous criminal, the officer began following the Renault and hit speeds of 94 MPH in a residential neighborhood without using his siren. After cresting a hill, the police Volvo slammed into and killed sixteen-year-old pedestrian Hayley Adamson who did not see the police car coming. It turns out the database was wrong and the driver being chased was completely innocent. (View video of the incident up to the moment of the crash).
British authorities have been using ANPR for several years, working to centralize ANPR data to allow police to keep tabs on criminals and political opponents. A data center in North London offers real-time, nationwide tracking capability. Australian and American red light camera companies hope to offer the same centralized tracking services in the US.
The license plate provision attached to the TxDOT sunset bill passed the full Senate last month without debate as Senate Bill 1426. The language was drafted by state Senator Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands).