By SHARON COOLIDGE
CINCINNATI, Ohio - A handheld device that can tell in a second whether a person is on one of 140 wanted or watch lists is being hailed by police as a crime-fighting breakthrough and flayed by civil libertarians as an intrusion on the innocent.
The sheriff's office in Clermont County, Ohio, is the first civilian law enforcement agency in the nation to test the portable fugitive finder.
Police say Mobilisa Inc.'s m2500 Defense ID system shows promise of saving them time and helping them fight crime. Critics say it intensifies questions about privacy.
The Port Townsend, Wash., wireless technology company says its handheld electronic scanner can identify within a second whether someone is a fugitive from justice, has a violent criminal past or is a convicted sex offender.
The scanner reads the magnetic strip or barcode on state-issued ID cards, passports and driver's licenses. It uses the information to determine whether a person shows up on wanted or watch lists, including ones from the Drug Enforcement Agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The databases are downloaded when the scanner is placed on a Mobilisa charger. In the field, the scanner operates wirelessly.
"It's a technology whose time has come," says Nelson Ludlow, Mobilisa's CEO. He says he came up with the idea for the scanner after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for use at military bases. He quickly realized it would benefit all law enforcement agencies.
Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, says the scanner raises concerns about privacy. The Cato Institute is a non-profit, public-policy research foundation in Washington, D.C., that promotes limited government.
Harper says use of the scanner emphasizes the need for society to decide whether average, law-abiding Americans should be stopped and checked for warrants as they go about their business.
"The Framers of the Constitution suggested that they shouldn't be when they wrote the Fourth Amendment," Harper says.
Personnel at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland started using the Defense ID in mid-January. Air Force One, the president's plane, is housed at the base.
"The Defense ID is a powerful security enhancement," says Sgt. Gregory Striejewske of the Visitor Control Center at Andrews.
So far, 108,432 identification credentials have been scanned, finding 286 hits of people who were wanted or had expired or terminated identifications, he says.
Clermont County Sheriff A.J. "Tim" Rodenberg says, "This is the future of crime fighting."
John Paxton, chairman of Mobilisa's board of directors, lives in Clermont County and is a friend of the sheriff. Paxton arranged for the department to begin testing the scanners late last year at no cost. The scanners cost $6,700 each, plus a $148 monthly service fee.
Between Jan. 1 and March 14, 1,277 identifications were scanned, and 33 resulted in arrests on warrants or came up as a sex offender. Another 18 people had expired driver's licenses.
Cincinnati attorney Martin Pinales, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, calls the Defense ID "another closing in of Big Brother."
He says showing identification to police during a traffic stop is one thing, but the scanner puts a private company in the encounter.
"Government has the right to contract with private companies, but this brings into question who controls the information," Pinales says. "What happens to the data collected?"
Ludlow says activity on a scanner can be recorded and searched by investigators for law enforcement purposes. The data remain the property of the law enforcement agency using the scanner, he says.
Ohio deputies first to test portable fugitive finder