South Florida cities use license plate readers to track drivers, search for criminals

But at what cost to our privacy?

Wherever you drive in South Florida, there’s a good chance you are being watched, your license plate and movements recorded and stored away for future use.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Wherever you drive in South Florida, there’s a good chance you are being watched, your license plate and movements recorded and stored away for future use.

“Everybody’s license plate is being scanned and everybody’s license plate geo-positioned and time of day is going into a database,” according to Coral Gables resident Raul Mas.

License plate recognition technology is not new, but in recent years more and more law enforcement agencies are using the cameras to keep track of who is passing through, with the goal of flagging anyone linked to criminal activity.

“So in 13 positions that we have picked throughout the city, we have cameras that are reading license plates,” said Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak.

Coral Gables is just one of many police departments using LPR cameras throughout Miami-Dade and Broward counties. But not everyone believes the technology benefits outweigh the privacy risks.

Coral Gables resident Raul Mas has been against the cameras from the beginning.

“It’s the equivalent of having a police car follow you every single day,” he explained.

Mas is currently involved in a lawsuit against the city. He requested records for his own vehicle captured by the cameras and was stunned by the dozens of pages of information he received.

“Your daily routine. Going to Publix, going to the dry cleaner,” he said. “I didn’t sign a user agreement with the city of Coral Gables to monitor me.”

Among his concerns, learning the company contracted to provide the cameras, Vigilant Solutions, stores the data collected for three years. It can share that information with dozens of law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.

“We only have limited information about them and what they do with it and how they use it,” Mas explained. “That should be alarming to anybody.”

Attorney Caleb Kruckenberg with the New Civil Liberties Alliance represents Mas in his suit against the city.

“The police have to be able to just say that we have a law enforcement purpose, and then we can look through the database,” Kruckenberg explained. “And when I asked the city, they said, actually, it can be just that a police officer is curious.”

Kruckenberg has been pushing for oversight, arguing if police want this information they should justify the reason and get a warrant. He pointed to police misusing other systems in recent years, like driver license searches.

“They told us that in the last five years, at least four different people who have been disciplined for looking up driving records without a good reason,” he added.

Coral Gables is not alone. The city of Doral has 147 LPR cameras, and also stores the data for 3 years. Miami Beach uses a total of 31 fixed, mobile and vehicle LPR cameras, but in contrast only keeps data for one year.

“Right now, our policy says three years, and I am very comfortable with that policy,” said Chief Hudak, who told Local 10 investigative reporter Amy Viteri his priority is public safety. And access to this technology can be a difference-maker.

“Because if your child or a child or somebody is abducted…I want to go back and see something that may have kind of tied into this case,” Hudak said.

The city has used plate recognition to help make arrests. In March an officer was honored after using the plate readers to help identify a stolen car. A search of the vehicle uncovered a backpack with 45 stolen credit cards.

Chief Hudak said the department also has safeguards in place to monitor how the system is being used. That includes routine audits as well as cameras observing investigators themselves when they access the system for information.

“If I don’t use all the technology available to me, it is critical if somebody gets away with a crime,” said Hudak. “Or I can’t hopefully stop a crime.”

In August a judge ruled against Mas, supporting the city’s argument the cameras were constitutional. The case is currently being appealed. For Mas, whose own family fled communist Cuba, it’s a slippery slope. He thinks more people should be concerned and wondering what’s next.

“If you have any desire to maintain even a semblance of privacy in your life, you should be asking yourself these hard questions,” he said.

Local 10 reached out to the camera company Vigilant Solutions for more information on how the data is shared. At this time they have not replied to calls or emails.