Cops Getting Free License Plate Readers in Exchange For 25% of The 'Take' and All The Driver Data Vigilant Can Slurp

by Tim Cushing
Jan. 29, 2016

What happens when you lower the barriers to entry? More participants join the market. It works everywhere, even when the market is "law enforcement" and the "customers" are everyone else.
Vigilant Solutions, one of the country’s largest brokers of vehicle surveillance technology, is offering a hell of a deal to law enforcement agencies in Texas: a whole suite of automated license plate reader (ALPR) equipment and access to the company’s massive databases and analytical tools—and it won’t cost the agency a dime.


Vigilant is leveraging H.B. 121, a new Texas law passed in 2015 that allows officers to install credit and debit card readers in their patrol vehicles to take payment on the spot for unpaid court fines, also known as capias warrants. When the law passed, Texas legislators argued that not only would it help local government with their budgets, it would also benefit the public and police.
Well, we can see how this will benefit law enforcement and others on the government food chain, but it's unclear how this will benefit the public. The bill's sponsor said the law would "relieve the burden" of having their vehicles impounded or being jailed for unpaid fines. But beyond those vague perks, the benefits seem to flow mostly in one direction.

The EFF quotes legal blogger Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast, who speculated the combination of license plate readers and credit card readers would push cops towards chasing down unpaid fines rather than enforcing traffic laws or performing more routine patrol duties. If so -- and it appears to be the case -- this is exactly the outcome Vigilant was expecting. It didn't hand out its tech for free. There may be no price tag on the plate readers at the point of purchase, but that's only because Vigilant has points on the back end.
The “warrant redemption” program works like this. The agency gets no-cost license plate readers as well as free access to LEARN-NVLS, the ALPR data system Vigilant says contains more than 2.8-billion plate scans and is growing by more than 70 million scans a month. This also includes a wide variety of analytical and predictive software tools.

The government agency in turn gives Vigilant access to information about all its outstanding court fees, which the company then turns into a hot list to feed into the free ALPR systems. As police cars patrol the city, they ping on license plates associated with the fees. The officer then pulls the driver over and offers them a devil’s bargain: go to jail, or pay the original fine with an extra 25% processing fee tacked on, all of which goes to Vigilant.
To make this relationship even more explicit, officers who issue tickets to parked vehicles rather than drivers leave a note instructing them to visit Vigilant's website to pay the fine. On top of the 25% fee, Vigilant also gets to collect massive amounts of sweet, sweet driver data, which it can then sell to other law enforcement agencies (database access licenses) and private firms (insurance companies, repo men, etc.). And, if the locals seem understaffed, Vigilant is more than happy to pick up the slack.
In early December 2015, Vigilant issued a press release bragging that Guadalupe County had used the systems to collect on more than 4,500 warrants between April and December 2015. In January 2016, the City of Kyle signed an identical deal with Vigilant. Soon after, Guadalupe County upgraded the contract to allow Vigilant to dispatch its own contractors to collect on capias warrants.
As the EFF points out, this freemium service benefits Vigilant and law enforcement, but does very little for the general public… including protect them from Vigilant's inability to perform its job competently.
During the second week of December, as part of its Warrant Redemption Program, Vigilant Solutions sent several warrant notices – on behalf of our law enforcement partners – in error to citizens across the state of Texas. A technical error caused us to send warrant notices to the wrong recipients.

These types of mistakes are not acceptable and we deeply apologize to those who received the warrant correspondence in error and to our law enforcement customers.
Apologies are nice, if of limited utility, but…
[T]he company has not disclosed the extent of the error, how many people were affected, how much money was collected that shouldn’t have been, and what it’s doing to inform and make it up to the people affected.
As has been discussed here before, turning law enforcement agencies into revenue-focused entities is a bad idea. Case in point: asset forfeiture. Further case in point: speed trap towns. Improper incentives lead to improper behavior. Agencies may like the idea of a "free" license plate reader, but the price still has to be paid by someone -- and that "someone" is going to be the general public.

As priorities shift towards ensuring ongoing use of the "free" ALPRs, other criminal activity is likely to receive less law enforcement attention. Unpaid fines and fees are in law enforcement's wheelhouse, but should never become its raison d'etre. Once it does, the whole community suffers. Anything that could be implemented to lower crime rates would also serve to lower revenue, making it far less likely to be implemented. Fewer infractions mean fewer opportunities to collect court fees. And while the legislators pushing the new law Vigilant is leveraging talked a good game about sending fewer people to overcrowded jails, the governments overseeing these agencies still have budgets to meet and law enforcement to lean on to ensure this happens. Actually achieving the bill's stated aims would mean a steady reduction in court fees, which would lead to the loss of "free" plate readers. And no one wants that, at least not on the government side of things.

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