Calif. PD tests units that scan for stolen cars

By Joe Hughes
San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — As soon as San Diego police Detective Brian Le Ribeus drove out of the Western Division parking lot, the computer inside his cruiser began to sound like Jiffy Pop.

Pop-pop . . . pop-pop . . . pop-pop-pop.

The search for stolen cars was on.

“Every time the computer makes that sound, it focuses on the (license) plate and checks it against a state stolen car database,” Le Ribeus said.

An alarm goes off when the car comes up as stolen, and the screen turns red and produces a photo of the car.

The $25,000 units – called license plate readers – are changing the way law enforcement investigates auto thefts and crimes associated with stolen vehicles.

The devices replace the traditional method of writing down license numbers and relaying them to a dispatcher.

“The license plate reader saves a lot of time and it doesn't blink. It picks up just about every car it passes,” Le Ribeus said.

Under a pilot project, two scanners operated part time by the San Diego Police Department's auto theft squad have recovered 106 stolen cars in 11 months. The average recovery rate in San Diego has been about 66 percent.

An estimated 400 of the country's 18,000 police departments have at least one plate reader.

Other police agencies are clamoring for them, said Joe Gardner, a director of sales for Autovu Technologies Inc., which makes the scanners.

“The demand is there,” Gardner said. “Auto theft is such a huge problem everywhere.”

Countywide last year, about 24,000 vehicles were reported stolen – a 21 percent increase from 2002. San Diego led the other cities with 13,300 stolen vehicles.

In San Diego County, the Sheriff's Department, California Highway Patrol, Escondido and El Cajon police are either using the scanners or are in the process of getting them.

Sheriff's Lt. Jim Duffy said his department has purchased two units using donated funds from the Viejas and Barona Indian tribes.

“We would like to have them on all patrol cars,” Duffy said. “That way, our deputies could use them in the course of regular patrol duties.”

Duffy said the units have “fantastic potential for more than just auto theft.”

Gardner said the device has other uses if programmed into any database that relies on license plate information.

“Some police departments are using them to track known drug dealers driving near schools,” Gardner said. “In the area of homeland security, they can be used to track suspicious vehicles in sensitive areas.”

The scanners raise concerns from civil libertarians who fear that police will misuse the technology, perhaps unfairly following movements of law-abiding drivers.

“It raises the fundamental question of how much power we want the government to have to track us,” said Kevin Keenan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial counties.

Keenan said that people may perceive the devices as “creepy” and that an outside independent watchdog should monitor the technology so it's not abused.

As for privacy concerns, one officer said anyone can write down a license plate number and there is no guarantee of privacy while driving or parking on a public thoroughfare.

When scanners identify stolen cars that are moving, officers have other considerations when deciding whether to pursue, including traffic congestion and potential risk to innocent people.

After three hours on the road, Le Ribeus had scanned more than 3,000 plates and obtained six hits on cars that may have had stolen or lost plates. He wanted a bona fide stolen car.

He hit pay dirt on Landis Street in City Heights.

The computer alarm sounded and Le Ribeus nabbed a gray Ford Tempo reported stolen in September. It was covered with dust and had a flat tire, and the steering-wheel lock was in the back seat.

Le Ribeus called the owner to tell him the car had been found, hoping he could come and get it and save a $200 tow and impound bill, but the man wasn't home and a tow truck company took the car to an impound lot.

But not before Le Ribeus examined it for clues that could lead to the arrest of an auto thief.

Copyright 2007 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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