• St. Johns County license plate readers leading to arrests, breaks in cases

    By: Brittney Donovan , Action News Jax

    Updated:

    License plate readers are helping St. Johns County deputies arrest dangerous criminals – but the technology is gathering data on you, too.

    They’re known as LPRs -- small mounted scanners that photograph every car that drives by.

    Chuck Mulligan, sheriff’s office spokesperson, said 30 are now on patrol cars and at intersections throughout the county. He says they scan about 3 million plates every month.

    Here’s how it works -- as people drive around town, license plate readers on the front and back of patrol cars are scanning each license plate that goes by. 

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    The LPRs snap photos of each car and tag. If a 'be on the lookout' has been issued for a particular tag, the deputy is alerted on a screen inside his patrol car.

    Mulligan said they’ve helped deputies arrest a murder suspect wanted in another state, and a serial child sex predator. Both drove into St. Johns County.

    The LPRs have also led to hundreds of felony and misdemeanor charges.

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    “It’s only looking for serious criminal elements -- homicide, armed robbery, missing persons, amber alert situations, stolen cars, stolen tags,” Mulligan said. “It never takes photographs of individuals in the cars so there’s no privacy concerns. What happens is it takes a photograph of the rear side of the car at an angle that only reads the tag and gives us an idea of what that vehicle looks like.”

    Mulligan says since their rollout earlier this year, LPRs have led to 102 arrests, and 73 stolen cars have been recovered, along with 10 missing persons.

    As of Nov. 13, SJSO says LPRs have led to:
    73 stolen vehicles recovered
    54 stolen tags recovered
    26 wanted persons arrested
    102 additional arrests 
    190 felony charges cleared
    100 misdemeanor charges cleared
    81 felony and misdemeanor cases furthered
    20 evidence of crime recovered
    10 missing endangered persons located

    The new technology doesn't come without its critics.

    In October, the New Civil Liberties Alliance filed a lawsuit against the city of Coral Gables claiming the plate readers are unconstitutional.

    "The government should not be collecting information on everybody in order to go after a small portion of people,” Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said.

    The data from every scanned tag can be saved for up to three years.

    When Action News Jax asked the St. Johns County Sheriff’s office if deputies have ever accessed that data, the answer was yes, in serious criminal investigations.

    This past weekend, LPR data led to the arrest of a couple accused of tying up and robbing a man during a Tinder date.

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    According to the sheriff’s office, they were found in a park with a gun inside their car after an LPR alerted deputies that they had re-entered the county.

    Mulligan calls the LPRs an important crime fighting tool.

    “Imagine that it’s 30 police officers, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week checking for criminal activity,” Mulligan said. “It’s probably the most innovative piece of technology that law enforcement has.”

    Mulligan said St. Johns County has seen a 36-percent decrease in auto burglaries in the past four months, but that it’s too early to credit LPRs with the dip.

    Nassau and Clay County Sheriff's Office tell Action News Jax that they're also using LPRs and plan to buy more. Putnam County is rolling out its own program, largely because of the role LPRs can play in Amber Alerts.

    Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said it doesn't have them or have plans to use them at this time.

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