It’s a little black box perched on a police car, and it’s always watching.
When 87-year-old Katherine “Kit” Grazioli’s body turned up along a dirt road in the foothills west of Colorado Springs last November, the little black box spied her stolen car within hours.
On the car door, police say, were the fingerprints of her killer.
Over the past two years, roof-mounted license-plate readers — a kind of high-tech surveillance camera — have quietly led authorities in the Pikes Peak Region to scores of stolen vehicles. They also have helped capture fugitives and kept tabs on paroled sex offenders — all by automatically scanning roads and parking lots with lightning-fast optics capable of photographing a license plate in the blink of an eye, or hundreds of license plates during a single patrol.
But according to documents obtained by The Gazette under the Colorado Open Records Act, the devices are watching more than just law breakers.
Colorado Springs police reports show that use of license-plate readers has allowed the city’s police department to construct a searchable databank containing hundreds of thousands of license plates belonging to ordinary drivers, with each entry disclosing when, and where, police last spied a certain vehicle.
The information — which potentially gives investigators a view into where people travel and how they spend their time — is characterized in internal police documents as a “massive intelligence database.”
Privacy advocates complain the databanks fail to exclude law-abiding drivers, who they say are likely unaware of the scope of monitoring.
“You’re talking about a record of movements over time of hundreds of thousands of innocent persons,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director of Colorado’s branch of the ACLU, which is mounting a nationwide effort to learn more about how license plate data is used. “It certainly is extremely powerful technology.”
Colorado Springs police defend their use of the devices as a lawful and effective crime-fighting tool.
Police received three license plate readers as part of a 2009 state grant that supplied eight devices to five local agencies.
The city’s Police Department serves as a central repository for data collected by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office and police in Monument, Fountain, Manitou Springs and Woodland Park.
In the past year, the database has grown to include more than 1.1 million vehicles, according to a Colorado Springs police tally for the 2011-2012 fiscal year ending in June.
And police, who haven’t publicly announced the database, may be looking to expand their data-sharing capabilities.
In April, police sent a representative to the Littleton Police Department, where “multiple agencies” discussed the possibility of pooling their information, or “hosting all of our data in one place,” as Lt. Jane Anderson wrote in an annual report that disclosed few details about the meeting.
Lance Clem, of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said he was unaware of any plans to create a formal, centralized database of license plates at the state level. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation is the agency that maintains the state’s criminal information databases.
Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority grants have purchased about 30 license plate readers for agencies across Colorado in the past several years, Clem said. The department doesn’t track license-plate readers purchased independently, he said.
Local and regional law enforcement groups say the device does little more than snap pictures on public roads, where drivers have diminished expectations of privacy.
“It’s similar to you writing down the license plates that you see on the roadway,” said Capt. Dave Santos of the Colorado State Highway Patrol, who added that the department’s license-plate readers are dedicated to the purpose of recovering stolen vehicles and nabbing auto thieves.
“I don’t see the violation of privacy. I just don’t.”
Santos added that in Colorado, driving is a privilege rather than a right, and he drew a legal distinction between tracking license plates and individuals.
Privacy advocates counter that widespread license-plate tracking could have a chilling effect on private business conducted in public — such as parking outside counseling meetings, doctors’ offices or political protests.
“Our movements — especially if they’re tracked with the precision of GPS locations — could reveal things that some people want to keep private,” Silverstein said.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, a nonprofit that supports use of the devices, warned members in a recent policy paper they could be courting controversy by storing information on the vehicles of law-abiding drivers.
To mitigate fears of a “Big Brother” surveillance program, some law enforcement agencies limit the scope of their database, purging information every 60 or 90 days, according to media reports.
Police in Colorado Springs keep information for a year at a time, Anderson said in an interview.
Anderson said Colorado Springs police are prohibited from using the data for personal reasons, and they train reader-car operators to take steps to confirm information returned by its license plate database.
Philip Dubois, a Colorado Springs defense attorney, called storing information on law-abiding drivers a “ham-fisted” approach to policing in the digital age — and one likely to draw scrutiny by the courts.
Dubois argued that a police officer snapping photos on a public street probably wouldn’t violate expectations of privacy, but a network of cameras taking thousands of snapshots a month may change the equation, especially when combined with searchable database technology.
“The government tries to stay ahead of technology, and almost always oversteps its bounds when it does,” he said. Before the courts weighed in, Dubois said, law enforcement groups used similar arguments to defend warrantless eavesdropping on telephone calls and secretly planting GPS units on cars.
The reach of the program is made possible by the incredible capabilities of license-plate readers, which have been in automated toll booths for years and became staples of airport parking lots after Sept. 11, 2001.
When a reader car is on patrol, multiple infrared cameras snap pictures of every vehicle in its midst, including cars behind it, traveling in the oncoming lanes, or parked on the side of the road, according to police.
The device’s text-recognition software can “read” license plates from all 50 states, regardless of light conditions.
“The system is limited only by the number of plates that are able to pass in front of the camera,” according to an internal policy document signed by Colorado Springs Police Commander Mark Smith.
Much of the investigative work is done automatically, with the software comparing license plate numbers against any number of law enforcement databases compiling arrest warrants, unpaid speeding tickets and other violations.
When such a car is located in real time, the device alerts its operator.
Alternatively, police can turn to the database of license plates for a list of results showing when and where a vehicle was last spotted.
After major crimes outside Colorado Springs, El Paso County sheriff’s deputies use one of two reader cars to document license plates in the vicinity — looking for witnesses and suspects alike.
A license-plate reader was recently installed at the El Paso County jail, and will soon begin sweeping the parking lot to vet jail visitors, said Sheriff Terry Maketa, adding that jailers used to run visitors for open warrants as a matter or routine. He said the practice became unsustainable within the past 15 years because the jail gets too many visitors to personally check.
Maketa said the camera in question — with a price tag of $15,000 — was purchased with money from an auto theft prevention grant.
The use of reader cars has been consistent with the laws, and aimed at balancing public safety with privacy, he said.
He characterized his office’s three license-plate readers as one more tool to stretch thin resources. Maketa said he recently purchased $85,000 facial-recognition software that will allow deputies to snap a picture with their cell phones and determine if someone is wanted for any crimes.
Within a year, it could be possible to automatically search commercial surveillance footage for wanted persons, Maketa said, adding that license-plate recognition software is also rapidly advancing.
“The courts are going to struggle with these questions as technology evolves,” he said.
What the courts decide will largely determine how law enforcement groups use readers, Maketa said, adding that cameras could one day be placed in enough locations to capture most drivers entering the city.
While police say the devices are principally used to combat car theft, figures show they produce more results when it comes to combing through license plates and comparing plates against a “hot list” of wanted vehicles maintained by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
During the 2011-2012 fiscal year, license plate readers led a regional auto theft task force to recover 76 stolen vehicles — about 6 percent of the 1,264 cars that were reported stolen in Colorado Springs alone.
During the same period, the readers automatically identified 14,745 other crimes and led to 129 felony arrests — among them Marcus Allen Smith, the 22-year-old accused in Grazioli’s Nov. 23 strangulation and abduction.
In that case, an officer equipped with a license-plate reader car found Grazioli’s stolen car in an apartment complex parking lot near her home, and fingerprints on the door matched those found in Grazioli’s house.
The devices are routinely deployed to large community events, documents show.
Figures from police show that hundreds of license plates are scanned, and stored, for every “hit” that is returned.
During a two-day enforcement sweep split between the Balloon Classic in Colorado Springs and the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo last September, Colorado Springs police and their partner agencies “read” roughly 30,000 license plates.
Out of those, the agencies recovered one stolen car and made one felony arrest, on suspicion of felony possession of drugs, police figures show.
Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366 Twitter @lancebenzel
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