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Colorado Town’s License Plate Reading Plan Raises Concerns

The local ACLU chapter wants assurances that information gathered doesn't beyond the scope of parking-enforcement.

Boulder, Colo. is set to implement a photo parking enforcement system that uses a state-of-the-art automatic license plate reader, and the Boulder County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is raising concerns about how the photos will be used, say published reports.

Boulder parking officials are finalizing a contract with Genetec—a technology and security company based in Montreal—to purchase AutoVu, a vehicle-mounted camera that can recognize license plates as fast as a parking officer is driving, the Colorado Daily reports.

The system captures images of vehicles, and notes the exact time and place each image was recorded, and an integrated computer system compares the license plates to a database of parking scofflaws. The computer can identify vehicles that have been parked too long in pay-to-park or in neighborhood parking zones.

Judd Golden, chairman of the Boulder County chapter of the ACLU, said the organization is not opposed to the city using photo enforcement, but the organization wants assurances that it will not be abused. The level of detail the database is capable of capturing leads to concerns about “mission creep,” or city officials using the information beyond the scope of its intended purpose as a parking-enforcement tool, he said.

“Are they scanning license plates of cars parked at demonstrations?” Golden said. “How could you be assured they aren’t going to have these (images) subpoenaed in civil court to be used in divorce cases?”

“We understand the efficiency and practicality of using these, but with any technology, I think you need to have protections against misuse and abuse,” Golden said.

However, Sarah Huntley, a spokeswoman for Boulder, said the city attorney plans to add to the city code the same protections for photo parking enforcement that apply to the city’s photo radar and photo red light cameras.

Boulder’s policy for those devices is to provide the images they capture only for law-enforcement purposes, or if ordered by a subpoena. Tickets that contain images from the cameras would also be considered public records. “There’s no other reason we would be releasing the photos,” she said.

But Huntley said the images could be made available to police who are investigating other crimes and want to use the database to determine when and where a vehicle was parked.

Providing the photos for the other investigation is an example of the kind of mission creep that concerns the ACLU, Golden said. “Solving one crime doesn’t justify potentially violating the privacy of thousands of innocent people,” he said. To avoid that conflict, the city should destroy images that are not used for ticketing, and not to retain pictures longer than necessary to enforce the parking laws, he added.