A bill expanding where automatic license plate readers can be deployed has passed the N.C. House Transportation Committee, despite objections from several members over privacy concerns.
House Bill 87 would allow the Department of Transportation to approve requests from municipalities, counties, and other government agencies to install automatic license plate readers within state rights-of-way.
Automatic license plate readers are small, high-speed cameras capable of reading thousands of license plates per minute and comparing them to crime or missing persons databases. The devices can be mounted on police cars or innocuously placed on road signs, bridges, or other roadside objects to track drivers.
The technology is already allowed in North Carolina, but H.B. 87 would expand where the devices can be deployed.
“This is something you can catch real criminals with,” Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, told committee members.
Faircloth said the bill has a long history. It passed in the House in 2013 but died in the Senate rules committee. The bill was reintroduced, but again has died in the Senate.
“I won’t stop running this bill until we get an end to it,” Faircloth said.
Proponents of the technology say it gives law enforcement a powerful tool to track criminals and keep the streets safe, but critics argue it’s a method of mass surveillance with few protections to protect people’s privacy. Civil liberty organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union have repeatedly criticized the use of the devices.
Several Republican and Democratic lawmakers urged their committee members to vote no on the bill.
“You will be tracked throughout the city,” Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, said. “It’s not about what the software can do today, it’s about what it can do tomorrow.”
While he said he supports law enforcement, Speciale said he doesn’t want to give up his liberties by allowing more of the devices in the state.
Rep. Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston, echoed Speciale’s concerns.
“The camel’s nose is in your tent. This helps him get in your bed,” Bumgardner warned. “This is more tracking of people who haven’t done anything.”
H.B. 87 also has its defenders.
Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, said law enforcement would still need a search warrant or a preservation request to access captured data.
“This idea that they are tracking everyone is ridiculous,” McNeill said.
Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, told a story about a man who killed his wife in North Carolina and tried to flee to Mexico. He was caught 17 minutes after a license plate reader flagged his tag in Arizona.
Fred Baggett, the legislative counsel for the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said he understands the privacy concerns, yet throughout the years no one has suggested people are misusing the data.
“These plate readers have been used to do what you charge law enforcement to do which is to catch dangerous criminals, murderers, and people on the terrorist watch lists, burglars, and so forth,” Baggett said. “We want to apprehend more and this will help.”
H.B. 87 passed the Transportation Committee and was referred to the N.C. House Rules Committee.