Law enforcement fights for front license plate requirement in Ohio

Cops use license plate reader technology to solve crimes, critics say its a Big Brother overreach.

Powerful license plate reader technology used by police agencies across Ohio can help solve crimes such as homicides, sexual assaults, kidnappings, skip-and-runs and more — a key argument being used by law enforcement trying to convince lawmakers to keep the requirement that vehicles display front plates.

Heather Whitton, senior computer programmer analyst for the Cincinnati Police and a national expert on LPR technology, said in a typical eight-hour shift, an LPR camera mounted on the trunk or light bar captures photos of about 3,000 vehicle plates. In about 3 percent, or 90 cases, the photos will trigger an alert for an outstanding warrant, stolen vehicle or other issue.

In two months, 12.6 million plate photos were captured across Ohio. Eliminating the front plates would cut the data capture by half, she noted.

Related: ACLU: Police record license plates by the millions

Cincinnati stores its photos in a massive database for a year; other agencies have their own retention policies. Dayton police have used the technology since 2010. The photos record the time, date and GPS coordinates.

Whitton said in addition to immediate alerts, the data can be accessed to help investigate crimes. Knowing which cars were in an area at the date of an assault or road rage or hit-skip could help officers find the culprit, she said.

For critics who see the technology as a Big Brother overreach, Whitton said LPR systems don’t record personally identifiable info, only capture images already in public view, and can only be accessed with proper authorization. The technology is grabbing information — plate letters and numbers — that are already required by law to be displayed, she said.

The front plate requirement is a sticking point in the state transportation budget bill negotiations. Lawmakers in the Ohio House want to eliminate it while the Ohio Senate wants to keep it.

Related: How much should Ohio raise the gas tax? Debate continues

House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, and others in favor of ditching the plate requirement say that specialty car owners are forced to drill holes in their front bumpers, detracting from the vehicle value.

Ohio has required a front plate since 1908, except 1944-46 when Ohio wanted to conserve steel for the war effort. Owners of specialty cars have lobbied for dropping the front plate for several years.

Related: Ohio House votes to no longer require a front license plate on vehicles

Whitton’s response? The specialty car owner whose car is dinged in a hit-and-skip would want the LPR systems to capture data on the offender, she said.

“It matters to the victims. It matters to the officers. It is a cost saving because we can investigate cases faster, we can close cases faster. We can bring resolutions to families faster,” she said. “It saves on prosecution time.”

Mike Weinman, lobbyist for the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, said in addition to LPR technology, front plates are left as clues in crimes such as hit-and-runs. “There is so much value in these front plates.”

Negotiations over the $7.4 billion two-year transportation budget bill broke off Friday and are expected to resume Monday.

Gov. Mike DeWine wants an 18-cent per gallon increase in the state gas tax; the Ohio House proposed a 10.7-cent gas tax increase and a 20-cent hike for diesel; the Ohio Senate is backing a much more modest amount — 6 cents per gallon.

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