Council grapples with plate readers

BUCKHANNON – Controversy over the use of a license plate reader by the Buckhannon Police Department continues to rage, as council members and citizens again grappled with the issue Thursday night.

In recent months, members of the public have addressed City Council with concerns regarding the storage of data collected on private individuals and the use of that data on the federal level. Although Police Chief Matt Gregory has argued there are many benefits to the LPRs, there has been vehement opposition to the perceived potential for abuse of the data collected.

The device, used by only one officer, is programmed to recognize and snap a photo of license plates. The equipment stores those photos in a database that can then be accessed by police during an investigation. Gregory said the device can help locate missing children or find those who are wanted for alleged crime.

Councilman Ron Pugh was the first to present a motion on the matter. Pugh wants to prevent the Buckhannon Police Department from using the LPR system until it can be reprogrammed to recognize only the license plates that are on a BOLO – be-on-the-lookout – alert. In additions, he wants non-BOLO photos erased and removed from any and all computer systems they are stored on within a period not exceeding 30 days.

Councilman Dave Thomas, who seconded the motion, later withdrew his second after clarification to a question. After he withdrew his second, Mayor Kenneth Davidson requested another second.

Davidson requested another second. No one responded, and the motion died before being considered.

Thomas asked Gregory if it was possible for him to do what Pugh was proposing.

“No sir, I cannot,” Gregory said. “I do not have that type of control over the machine.”

Davidson also asked if Gregory could limit the storage to thirty days, and he also replied that he could not. Thomas then asked Gregory if, although he said he could not do it, if it could be done at some level.

“That would be a question that I believe has to be asked of the (West Virginia) State Police, and I believe has been asked,” Gregory said. “I can’t answer that question.”

After Thomas withdrew his second to the motion and the motion failed, he presented his own motion, which passed, with only Pugh standing in opposition. Thomas moved that a letter be drafted to the West Virginia Legislature requesting it take up the matter by setting guidelines for the use of license plate readers within the state. He said the letter would first be brought before Council for approval, once drafted. Thomas said the letter could also be sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. He also amended his motion to include that the letter be ready by the first meeting in July.

“I’m very uncomfortable with what Matt has said,” Thomas said.

Councilman Tom O’Neill said the matter is really not one to be decided at the city level, because it could work its way up the ladder to the county and continue on. He points out it is more of an issue for the Legislature.

“We’ve discussed this. This is probably the fifth meeting that we’ve delved into this topic in-depth,” O’Neill said. “I think at every meeting I have said, more or less, the same thing. I have a great deal of concern over the potential for abuse of the database information. However, what we have are fears of abuse versus real-life instances where it’s been a benefit, so how do you weigh that in the balance? When it comes to the license plate readers themselves, there is no state law on this at all.”

“There are no administrative rules that have been set by any state agency at all. … We have something that is perfectly legal, that is used by public agencies and private individuals without any violation of law that is used by repossession companies, banks and down the line,” O’Neill added.

“We have something that is perfectly legal, that we have no laws against their use, but we’re tying to say that we’re going to prevent the Buckhannon Police Department from using one, something that’s otherwise perfectly legal,” O’Neill continued. “That’s why I feel like … this ball is in the wrong court. This is a matter for the State Legislature to deal with.”

Many citizens attending the meeting said by making a decision not to allow the devices – which they feel is an invasion of privacy and civil rights – would still send a message to the Legislature about their stance on the matter, which could then help push them to pass laws regarding the use of LPRs.

Davidson made a point that anyone can take a photo of someone else’s license plate from public property, and it isn’t illegal because it is public information. However, one person in opposition challenged that statement. Jeremy McGowen said he submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in an attempt to access the license plate data collected on his own vehicle, which was then denied.

“If that is the case, sir, and if you do in fact believe that license plates are public information, why is the city still stonewalling me on my FOIA request for my own license plate information for the ALPRs if you, in fact, do think that they are publicly accessible information,” McGowen said.

“I’m not going to ague that with you,” Davidson said. “You asked for information about (it). You got an answer that was written by people who are smarter than I am.”

“What I’m understanding is that it’s not public information when it’s convenient for the government to not have it be public, but it is public information when it is also convenient for the government to have it be public,” McGowen said.

Davidson then told him if he wanted to know what his license plate number is, the information could be provided to him. McGowen said he’s familiar with the number, but wants to know what information the LPR has collected.

Pugh also has taken a stance against the license plate readers, citing in his initial motion that he believed them to be “a potential violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution” and a “potential litigation against the city of Buckhannon and its police force.”