Virginia Towns Using Federally-Funded License Plate Readers To Collect Local Taxes

by Tim Cushing
Techdirt
Apr. 01, 2015

Two things remain certain in life: death... and law enforcement agencies using license plate readers obtained with Homeland Security grants for purposes not even remotely related to securing the homeland.

Here's how Newport News, Virginia's police department obtained its automatic license plate readers:
Grant money from a terrorism prevention program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management provided the funding for automatic license plate readers for several Hampton Roads agencies, including Newport News, Suffolk, Norfolk, Williamsburg, James City County, York-Poquoson and Isle of Wight, said Laura Southard, public outreach coordinator for the state's emergency management department.

Hampton Roads law enforcement departments received $869,000 in 2009, $357,000 in 2010 and $143,000 in 2011 for license plate readers, Southard said.
And here's what it's doing with them:
Delinquent taxpayers in Newport News could have their vehicles impounded if new cameras snap a photo of their license plates around town.

In an attempt to claim the nearly $4 million in delinquent personal property taxes owed, the city will soon begin using license plate scanners to find vehicles on which more than $200 in personal property taxes are owed.

The cameras will be mounted to the backs of six sheriff's department cruisers to automatically read license plate numbers. Those numbers will be cross-searched with a database updated daily of all the license plates in the city with more than $200 in personal property taxes owed, Treasurer Marty Eubank said.
The terms "terrorism" and "drug enforcement" were likely thrown around during the application process, but the end result is the city viewing law enforcement technology as just another revenue generator. A "hit" from the ALPR will result in the vehicle being towed within three days if the delinquent taxes aren't paid off or a payment plan set up.

While the city has every right to pursue delinquent taxes, it has no business re-purposing federally-purchased law enforcement technology to do so. Citizens concerned about ALPR databases housing millions of non-hit records have always been assured that this technology will be used to fight the baddest of the bad: drug dealers, terrorists, auto thieves, kidnappers, etc. But now it's being used to collect back taxes -- hardly the sort of thing Homeland Security funds should be used for.

Things get even more petty a little down the road in Hampton, Virginia. While Newport News' enforcement efforts don't kick in unless more than $200 is owed, Hampton is all about the Lincolns.
Hampton has one camera mounted to a city minivan, not a police vehicle, which is driven around town every week day, said Dave Ellis, field compliance supervisor in the Hampton Treasurer's Office. When field investigators find a vehicle with a license plate for which more than $5 in property taxes is owed, they first place a warning sticker on the vehicle telling the owner to make contact with the city. If there is no response from the owner after about a week, the investigators go back and remove the license plates or put on a wheel lock, Ellis said.
Hampton's tax-collecting ALPRs were first deployed in 2008. It's left unclear how the usually "law enforcement-only" technology ended up in the city's hands, but most likely a Memorandum of Understanding allowed the transfer of the plate readers. To date, $1.4 million in federal funds have been dispersed to pay for law enforcement's ALPRs -- and now some of them are being used to track down $5 property tax deadbeats.

Isle of Wight doesn't even bother doing its own tax collection efforts. According to the article, this is outsourced to a private company with its own plate readers, meaning there's next to zero accountability. Turning a city job private keeps records related to tax collection efforts a little further away from curious constituents and their Freedom of Information requests.

Not that the Hampton Roads law enforcement network is too concerned about overstepping its bounds or potentially violating constitutional rights. As was covered here late last year, these same law enforcement agencies have built their own phone record database -- filled with data obtained from subpoenas, warrants and court orders -- which is shared between the multiple agencies with no apparent oversight.

Once you get past the re-purposing of federal funds for local tax collection, you arrive at the question of cost effectiveness. Hampton sends its city vehicle out every weekday to troll for plates. On top of the paycheck handed out to the driver(s), there's fuel and vehicle wear-and-tear costs to be considered, along with whatever's being paid to maintain the technology and its database. And yet, it seems satisfied to have collected $60,000 in unpaid taxes last year -- seemingly "break even" at best.

The bottom line is this: if you want to use ALPRs to catch delinquent taxpayers, then be upfront about this and use local funds to purchase the equipment. Don't simply use the technology because it's there. Using federally-funded plate readers is basically asking the rest of the US to fund your local tax collection efforts. And just like when law enforcement deploys these readers, there should be explicit, public information about how the data is collected, retained and destroyed. Sure, law enforcement agencies have been less than open about these factors, but at least they have the (poor) excuse that there are means and methods to protect. The cities doing this don't have anything to protect -- at least nothing that would (supposedly) threaten public safety if it were made known.













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