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Published: Wednesday, 8/11/2004

Test devices to serve as snooper troopers

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Fugitives and car thieves beware: Ohio's got an extra set of "eyes" looking for you.

And it's checking out everyone else too.

Starting this week, the Ohio Highway Patrol has been looking for bad guys by automatically checking the license plate of every vehicle chugging down the Ohio Turnpike.

Electronic devices have been placed at both ends of the turnpike - and in two cruisers driving along the toll road - to zap license plate numbers and feed them into a huge national crime database.

Col. Paul McClellan, superintendent of the highway patrol, said the four-month test may turn up a host of criminals.

"Each day criminals are using Ohio highways to transport drugs, flee crime scenes, and target innocent victims for crimes ranging from auto theft to kidnapping, rape, and murder," Colonel McClellan said in a statement.

Lt. Rick Zwayer, a highway patrol spokesman, said the turnpike is a test location to determine whether the devices are effective in identifying

wanted vehicles. If it proves successful, the highway patrol will consider deploying them elsewhere, he said.

In recent years, troopers have apprehended a rising number of interstate criminals on the toll road, particularly drug runners.

But the new devices, which use lasers to read the plates, have raised the ire of civil libertarians who fear they could be abused in the future if some agency or someone starts tracking the whereabouts of vehicles that do not match anything in the criminal database.

Jeff Gamso, the Ohio legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the opportunity to conduct surveillance using such scanners would exist, especially if authorities decide to deploy it more extensively along the state's highway system.

"They have the means to track everybody's movements all the time, as long as they're in a car," Mr. Gamso said.

Lieutenant Zwayer said the highway patrol will not engage in any secret activities using the devices.

"The public will be made aware of the uses for this technology," the lieutenant said. "We will fully disclose who the equipment is going to be used by."

The lieutenant said that if a scanned license plate matches one listed in the National Crime Information Center's database - for stolen cars or arrest warrants - the system will alert troopers of the vehicle's presence. Troopers will be required to verify the plate by observation, he said.

The system is similar to bar-code readers used in supermarkets, but is designed to recognize the characters on license plates. It can identify colors on the plates, in order to distinguish different states.

Scanners have been installed at turnpike Gates 2 and 239, the barrier plazas at the east and west ends of the Ohio Turnpike. Two others have been installed in highway-patrol cruisers assigned to the toll road.

Mr. Gamso questioned whether enough stolen cars and wanted fugitives use the turnpike to justify the $61,000 budgeted cost for the test, which is being funded by a federal grant.

"It may not all be from Ohio, but somebody's tax dollars are paying for this," he said. "There just aren't that many people driving stolen cars on the Ohio Turnpike."

Police throughout the country are increasingly turning to the use of digital technology. Police in New York and Florida use scanners to feed license plate information to computers after making traffic stops, which allows them to run background checks without talking to a dispatcher over their radios.

Last year, Indiana began putting bar codes on its license plates, becoming the third state to do so. But officials noted that the letters and numbers on plates are big enough for scanners to read without using the bar codes, which were intended to make police and bureau of motor vehicles operations more efficient.

Before the highway patrol signs on, the test will help it figure out if the scanners can be fooled by the plastic covers that some motorists put on their license plates to keep them clean. Some covers become cloudy over time, while others are tinted.

"The digital recognition should still work," Lieutenant Zwayer said. "But we're not certain as to what may defeat [the scanners]. If you change the color or readability of any license plate, then that's a violation of Ohio law itself."

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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