DA Zappala Calls Automatic License Plate Readers “Public Safety” Tools

Aug 2, 2012

Allegheny County's top prosecutor says he doesn't object to a request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania for information on how law enforcement uses automatic license plate readers to record and store the movements of drivers.

As part of a nationwide effort, the ACLU has sent requests to 15 police departments plus the Pennsylvania State Police for the information.

District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr. told 90.5 FM's Essential Pittsburgh that law abiding citizens should not worry about law enforcement wrongly using the information.

"It would only be used and developed by persons who have obligations both from an investigative and intelligence perspective, you know, being part of law enforcement," Zappala said. "That information cannot be disseminated unless it's going to be used in connection with a particular prosecution."

He added that the ALPR's can be compared to cameras in police cars.

"Since we started to use that substantially, complaints against a police agency or particular officer have been down over 90% because you have an objective basis upon which to review a stop, an arrest, you know, that type of thing. So, I mean, the benefit to the public in that regard has been huge," Zappala said.

According to Zappala, PennDOT has the database but the information is not stored in the way people might think.

"If you're looking for a particular vehicle, particular plate, there was a crime that was just committed, you're looking for a particular type of car, I mean, that stuff, it's a fluid situation, it's something that you look for in connection with a particular matter. They don't create a database that way," Zappala said.

Zappala called the ALPR's a public safety tool. "We're looking at typically the use of the technology we're talking about today in a context of a major crime — the commission of a major crime," Zappala said.

ACLU staff attorney Sarah Rose told Essential Pittsburgh that so far, the only responses they've received from police departments has been that don't use the devices.