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Detectives are cooperating across police boundaries, accessing license plate scans taken by the other jurisdictions. The Back Office Server System, or BOSS data-sharing network, has made L.A. County's one of the most interconnected LPR systems in the country.
The Robles case illustrates how the interconnectedness works:
Months after Robles was killed, detectives tapped into BOSS and discovered that license plate scans of the suspected getaway car had been recorded in Compton on the same day Franklin Robles was murdered. Investigators canvassed Compton for witnesses and, police say, eventually solved the crime.
Today, five suspects are under arrest and awaiting preliminary hearings: Shawn Verrette, Frank Ervin and Luis Orozco have been charged with murder; two others, Rosa Orozco and Nancy Acevedo, have been charged as accessories.
Morgan, who manages the license plate recognition program for LBPD, says the "back-office" analysis of shared data is already a fixture of basic police work. LAPD Sgt. Dan Gomez agrees, saying, "It's been used in homicides, it's been used in robberies, it's been used in serial rape investigations, counterterrorism cases."
Department of Homeland Security grant documents, obtained by the Weekly through the Freedom of Information Act, suggest that in addition to the hundreds of LPR devices now atop police vehicles, about 60 are hidden along strategic roadways near potential terrorist targets such as LAX and the Port of Long Beach.
In 2005, when LPR made its debut here, police agencies generally threw out all of the unneeded information that wasn't tied to a stolen or otherwise wanted vehicle.
Now there's a lot of cheap digital storage space, so LAPD holds all of its data for five years, Long Beach for two, the Sheriff's Department for two.
But Sgt. John Gaw, with the Sheriff's Department, says, "I'd keep it indefinitely if I could."
ACLU's Bibring calls these long retention times "exceedingly troubling," and state Sen. Joe Simitian has introduced legislation setting a 60-day retention limit, which copies the California Highway Patrol.
Police officials are quick to note that the information being gathered isn't private. License plates are owned by the DMV and routinely recorded by police — that's one of the main reasons they exist.
"It's not Big Brother," Gaw says. "It's doing what a deputy normally does in his routine duties."
Because automatic license plate recognition photos don't typically show the driver's face, LAPD's Gomez argues, "Nothing about the system tracks people — it looks at vehicles. Any other details, gender, race, identity — it can't see."
In cases like U.S. v. Wilcox, federal courts usually have agreed with police. No human officer needs probable cause or even any suspicion to record your plate; law enforcement lawyers argue that using LPR just automates the process.
Police say they're sensitive to privacy concerns, but contend that slapping on a 60-day archiving restriction would make LPR largely useless for anything other than "hot list"–type patrolling. Among other things, keeping LPR data could provide breaks in cold cases.
"We get that it [privacy] is a huge issue," Morgan says. "We get it, and we're doing our best to balance our need to know and people's privacy."
Privacy advocates say courts may re-evaluate their stance when it comes to LPR. Tien, the senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling on GPS devices could come into play.
The court determined that police must get a warrant to install GPS on a suspect's car. The ruling was "narrow," Tien says, and offered little guidance on technologies such as LPR.
Tien says that if the use of automatic license plate recognition becomes so widespread that police are effectively recording every movement a vehicle makes, which could be tantamount to tracking people with a GPS unit, sans warrant.
"Actually," Tien says, "this is better. They don't have to go to the trouble of installing a device."
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