When the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office suggested allowing automated license plate readers — cameras — at three key roadways within city limits, the idea was met with concern both from the public and the Half Moon Bay City Council.
At the May 7 City Council meeting, Capt. Saul Lopez and Executive Director of Northern California Regional Intelligence Center Mike Sena proposed a site survey on three locations in Half Moon Bay where they said automated license plate readers could assist law enforcement in identifying vehicles involved in criminal activity. They suggested using technology from Vigilant Solutions.
NCRIC is a regional public safety program, designated by the governor’s office as the fusion center for the Northern California District of California. The agency’s role is to support law enforcement agencies through information sharing across jurisdictions.
Automated license plate recognition systems work by capturing an image of a vehicle and the vehicle’s license plate. The technology is used in two ways by law enforcement. It collects the license plate information and compares it to one or more databases, or a “hot list,” of vehicles of interest to law enforcement.
This may include vehicles that are identified as stolen, involved in a crime or associated with a missing persons case.
The cameras also provide data for law enforcement working on investigations by identifying vehicles associated with suspects, witnesses or victims.
Lopez and Sena clarified that guidelines ban NCRIC from sharing information with any agency conducting immigration enforcement. The data collected from the readers would be stored for up to 12 months before being erased, according to Sena.
Lopez cited an example of a recent armed robbery at Wells Fargo in Half Moon Bay in which the use of an automated license plate reader might have been useful.
“If we would have known there was a car on our ‘hot list,’ that would have been triggered and that alert would have been broadcast to our patrol deputies,” Lopez said. “We do not know if the crime could have been prevented, but there is a possibility we could have located the car. It is about timing.”
Members of the public worried about civil liberties and the perception that the information could be used to track the movement of innocent people or be turned over to immigration enforcement agencies. “You should take the time to acquaint yourselves and us with how the technology works and how we might avoid the problems that have surrounded its use in the past,” said Half Moon Bay resident Paul Grigorieff, addressing the council.
Joaquin Jimenez, also of Half Moon Bay, said he would not feel comfortable going about town knowing information was being recorded.
“I am all about fighting crime, all for catching the bad guy, but to what extent is it going to violate other people’s rights?” Jimenez said.
Councilwoman Debbie Ruddock explained she would consider the idea, but wanted to get feedback from the community before proceeding.
“I believe we are a visitor-serving community and we have crimes of opportunity,” Ruddock said. “I think it is good insurance, and, given the profile of the community, it makes it an idea worthy of consideration.”
Both Mayor Harvey Rarback and Councilwoman Deborah Penrose were critical.
“I do not trust technology’s ability to protect itself,” Penrose said. “I believe that with systems like this, once they are in place, they are very difficult to get rid of.”
Penrose stated that with the relatively low crime rate in Half Moon Bay there is no justification to have a system that could potentially be used by U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement to locate people.
Those fears have been born out in other communities. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit asking for records on ICE’s relationship with private companies that access information through automated license plate reader databases. The lawsuit revealed more than 9,000 ICE officers have gained access to the license plate reader database run by Vigilant Solutions. Signed in 2017, that contract gives ICE access to the Vigilant database until September 2020.
Additionally, more than 80 local law enforcement agencies from several states have agreed to share license plate location information with ICE. The ACLU reported a list of local agencies that granted ICE ongoing access to license plate locations, including Union City, and, as part of the FOIA request, it showed emails where local police handed information on drivers over to ICE in an informal fashion that violates local laws.
On Jan. 1, Senate Bill 34 went into effect in California, prohibiting law enforcement agencies from sharing license plate and personal information to immigration enforcement, out-of-state or federal agencies. As part of the presentation, Sena said that data from the license plate readers cannot be used “solely for immigration efforts.”
Councilmen Adam Eisen and Robert Brownstone said they wanted to hear more from the public before deciding if the cameras were the right fit for Half Moon Bay. “On the upside, I get it is easier to capture people doing bad things, but I have seen during some of my reading that there have been times where ICE has gotten ahold of the information and that does scare me,” Eisen said.
The council decided to hold a special meeting in June or July to invite the public to weigh in on the use of the license plate readers.