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A split-second glimpse, a beep - and an arrest

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office's new high-tech equipment needs just a millisecond to check a suspicious tag number.

By JACOB H. FRIES
Published July 28, 2006


All sheriff's Deputy Matt Ingoglia had to do was drive. The infrared cameras on his cruiser did the rest, instantly scanning the tag of every car he passed at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg.

After 15 minutes, his laptop beeped. The cameras had found what Ingolia always looks for but has found only once: a stolen car.

"Oh, it took me by surprise," said Ingolia, a patrol deputy for five years. "This technology is amazing."

So amazing that the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office bought four of the "Mobile Plate Hunters" and installed them this week. The $20,000 devices are essentially a pair of mounted cameras that can scan thousands of license plates during a deputy's shift and check them against a database of stolen vehicles.

One day, officials said, the cameras could be connected to other databases, including a list of wanted fugitives and scofflaws.

"We feel this is going to be a great tool and we hope to get more units as time goes by," Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said Thursday.

"Obviously folks who are involved in stealing cars are also involved in other criminal activity," he said. "This will help us identify those offenders."

Coats said he thinks his agency is the first in the Tampa Bay area to acquire the technology, which is beginning to appear at law enforcement agencies around the country and is already widely used in Europe.

The plate hunters can read as many as 10,000 plates in a single shift, according to manufacturer Remington Elsag, a North Carolina company. By hand, an industrious deputy might check 250 in a day, officials say.

The technology is not without critics who raise concerns about invasions of privacy, potential abuse and erroneous traffic stops.

Bruce Howie, chair of the legal panel of the Pinellas American Civil Liberties Union, said he fears mistakes could lead to wrongful traffic stops and violate Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches.

"When you turn the job over to machines, you have to redouble your concerns that errors are going to occur," Howie said.

Howie said such license-plate-scanning devices, like facial recognition technology, are producing a society in which a person's every move will one day be recorded and scrutinized.

"Ultimately the government will have the ability to track people without probable cause, or even with any particular interest, and then use that information after the fact to invade privacy," he said.

But Coats said scanning license plates is standard police practice. Adding cameras to the mix simply helps law enforcement officers do their jobs more efficiently and find stolen cars, he said. Sheriff's officials said an agency in Ohio saw its recovery of stolen vehicles increase by 50 percent.

"Law enforcement has a responsibility to enforce laws and apprehend criminals," Coats said. "This is just another tool for making our job easier. I don't see in any way where it even begins to infringe on someone's rights."

And a lot of cars are stolen - 4,195 in Pinellas last year and 6,264 in Hillsborough.

As of June this year, 547 vehicles have been stolen in the Pinellas sheriff's jurisdiction, but only 267 have been recovered. The Sheriff's Office covers unincorporated parts of the county and several municipalities, including Dunedin, Seminole, Safety Harbor and Oldsmar.

The cameras can be mounted on different parts of the cruiser, either to scan tags on vehicles ahead of a deputy or pointing straight out to scan tags of parked cars, as Ingolia did at Tyrone Square Mall. Deputies could even angle the lenses to scan cars while they park alongside a road writing reports.

Using infrared light, the cameras work day or night - even in the rain - and automatically snap photos of passing license plates up to 40 feet away.

They even catch tags bolted to vehicles moving at 75 mph.

A computer in the cruiser's trunk then converts the picture into number and letters, using character-recognition software.

It instantly checks the plate number against a database of 100,000 stolen vehicles and plates, updated daily by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

An alarm sounds when a match is made - it takes milliseconds - but a deputy will always verify the accuracy of the match before making a traffic stop, officials said.

On Thursday, Ingolia demonstrated how the device works. With the cameras mounted on the trunk, he drove around the Sheriff's Office parking lot where a car had been planted with a stolen plate.

Once, he hadn't even backed out of a parking spot before the cameras found the target plate, spotting it from an odd angle. The alarm sounded in the passenger compartment.

"See," he said, "these things are good."

Jacob H. Fries can be reached at 727 445-4156 or jfries@sptimes.com.

HOW IT WORKS

1. Two infrared cameras mounted on a cruiser take photos of passing license plates. The cameras are triggered by the reflective material in the plate.

2. A computer uses character-recognition software to determine the letters and numbers of the license plate.

3. That plate number is then checked against a daily "hot list" of stolen vehicles and stolen license plates.

4. An alarm sounds for each possible match, taking just milliseconds.

5. The deputy then verifies the accuracy by looking at the tag before taking any action.

Source: Pinellas County Sheriff's Office

[Last modified July 28, 2006, 05:35:03]


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