Automatic license plate readers help catch criminals, but some call technology invasive

Photo of automated license plate reader used by police to capture wanted man who hit officer with his car before being shot and killed by police on May 17 in Arlington, Va. Thursday, May 18, 2017 (ABC7 photo)

They are a different kind of 'black box.'

Usually they can be found mounted in pairs, on the trunk of police cruisers.

"It is a real high tech, way new modern way for the government to collect information," said Hope Amezquita, an attorney with the ACLU of Virginia.

The boxes are actually high-speed digital cameras, capable of recording thousands of images.

Paired with an in-car laptop, these automatic license plate readers, or ALPR for short, are able to scan multiple car tags, much faster than the human eye.

"It is a technology that greatly assists us in being able to track license plates as they come in," said Ashley Savage, an Arlington County Police Spokesperson. "The license plate reader is able to scan multiple license plates at a given time, whereas our officers are also able to run license plates, but they have to do everything by hand."

An ALPR 'hit'--- an electronic heads-up by the device, led to the discovery that the driver of a pickup, riding on Interstate 395, was wanted on an outstanding drug warrant.

That finding set off a chain of events Wednesday that ended with a driver fatally wounded, and several officers hurt, with at least one sent to the hospital.

Police say behind the wheel was 28-year old George Boak, of Centreville, Virginia.

Virginia State Police say Boak had an outstanding warrant for violating his probation, issued in Fairfax County General District Court.

"This case started with an alert from a license plate reader that advised that a subject traveling on I-395 was wanted," Savage said.

After that alert, officers tried to stop Boak along the interstate, near Route 1.

But he somehow maneuvered around police, who then caught up with him on the Glebe Road exit ramp in Arlington.

Officers approached Boak's pickup, giving him verbal commands, which police say he didn't comply with.

"Eventually, the driver put the vehicle into drive, struck one officer on foot, pinned him against another vehicle," Savage said.

That's when police opened fire on Boak, who later died at the hospital from his wounds.

Officers then managed to get their trapped colleague free.

Injured in the leg, he was transported to a medical facility as well, but was treated and released. By Thursday evening, he was home recovering from the injuries.

Meanwhile, the Virginia chapter of the ACLU has filed a legal challenge against the ALPR's use in Fairfax County.

"We're deeply concerned about the privacy rights of ordinary citizens who are just driving their cars and somehow an ALPR captures their license plate information," Amezquita said.

The group says it has no objections to the technology itself, but with the idea of storing the data for long periods, with the potential sharing of that intel among police agencies.

"Are they using these devices and this technology wholesale to collect information on hundreds of thousands of citizens who are not suspected of wrongdoing?" Amezquita asked.

In November 2016, a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the Fairfax County Police Department, saying a license plate should not be considered personal information.

On Friday, the Virginia Supreme Court will hear the ACLU's petition for appeal; put simply, ACLU attorneys are asking the state high court to consider their case.

For their part, Arlington County authorities say the ALPR collects plate information only, and that any data collected is deleted in 60-day cycles.

"The LPR does not capture any personal data," Savage said. "It's not going to tell us anything further on the suspect. It's up to us to then conduct that investigation."

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