Action News Jax Investigates has uncovered some license plate readers (LPRs) on state roads in Florida are not complying with the law.
Action News Jax first reported in 2018 that license plate readers were being used across the country including in places like St. Johns County.
LPRs are supposed to help deputies find people wanted on warrants or even missing children, but there are questions about their location and if the technology goes too far.
Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill in July that now allows law enforcement to hire companies to place the devices on state roads, not just county roads. But Action News Jax Investigator Ben Becker found dozens have been installed in Northeast Florida without a permit from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) - which means state law is being violated.
The permit is required because the right of way on state roads is owned by FDOT, and the agency has policies and procedures that need to be followed as it relates to driver and pedestrian safety.
The LPRs belong to a company called Flock Safety based in Atlanta. Becker learned in addition to St. Johns County, Clay, and Nassau counties also lease the devices for tens of thousands of dollars per year.
Flock’s said its cameras are already in use in more than 3,000 communities in at least 40 states capturing pictures of one billion cars per month.
In 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union warned that Flock is building a mass surveillance system “unlike any seen before in American life.”
Lt. George Harrigan of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office gave Becker a tour of its real-time intelligence center where only four people can track tens of thousands of cars every day using 20 cameras across the county.
“I would say license plate readers are our number one crime-fighting tool when it comes to technology in St. Johns County and law enforcement technology in general,” said Harrigan.
Since 2018, SJSO said 393 stolen cars have been recovered, 107 wanted people arrested, and 72 missing people recovered.
But what if the information law enforcement has is wrong or lawmakers change the scope of these cameras’ use, like speeding or enforcing minor infractions?
“When you operate a car, you are open to inspection,” according to Action News Jax Law and Safety Expert Dale Carson who said LPRs raise privacy concerns.
“What if they stop you, search your car, detain you for 45 minutes call a dog the dog sniffs around and doesn’t find anything what about it then,” said Carson.
Flock said its software doesn’t use facial recognition and they don’t measure speed. But it does create a “vehicle fingerprint” that includes not only your license plate, but the color, make, and even the bumper sticker on your car.
Becker asked the Sheriff’s Office to search his own license plate in the system and they found 132 photographs of his car from various cameras over the past 30 days meaning Becker was tracked in a database even though he had never been suspected of a crime.
Deputies said they only look at the data if there’s a reason connected to crime. “Law enforcement isn’t in the business of invading people’s rights,” said Harrigan. “This is about saving lives and solving crimes.”
Becker found it can be used even if you aren’t accused of a crime. Flock’s contract states it will share your information if it is “legally compelled to comply with a judicial order, subpoena, or government mandate.”
One driver we spoke with was concerned. “There needs to be a limit for what it’s used for,” said driver Fran Rollin. But she’s willing to trade privacy for protection. “If you are not doing anything wrong, I don’t see that it matters they take a picture of your car.”
FDOT told Becker that it received a permit from Clay County in September, but no requests so far from St. Johns and Nassau counties.
Flock sent Becker a statement that reads in part “…we are in the process of understanding all of those permitting requirements, and are working with local district engineers to properly fulfill them…”
Departments like the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office that don’t use cameras can potentially still get access to Flock’s database if it signs a memo of understanding establishing the terms and conditions.
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