Investigative Tool: Automatic License Plate Readers

Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) are cameras that are specially designed to record license plates and concurrently gather the time, date, and location information. In most cases, that information is stored, and often times transmitted elsewhere for later retrieval.

The technology was actually developed in the UK by a law enforcement research center in the late 1970s. It wasn’t until 1981 where it was used for the first time in a criminal case. However ALPR didn’t really become practical until computer and networking advances had been made.

Today, use of ALPR cameras sees far more than law enforcement usage. Repo companies, parking garages, malls, and even HOAs make use of ALPR systems.

For legal investigations this data is a potential treasure trove. ALPR can help give insight into new residences information for defendants or witnesses. Photo sightings can provide corroborating evidence for alibis, or discredit them. At my company we’ve seen them be useful in cases ranging from domestics to corporate fraud to skip traces.

In recent history in the US the majority of ALPR data collection has been through one or two companies. This made it easy to query and find all available data, and the aggregating companies stored data in perpetuity. This resulted in over decade of data being avaialable about a license plate or a given location. That landscape is changing largely due to two factors. The first is camera availability. Dedicated ALPR cameras used to run thousands of dollars – but today standalone ALPR cameras can be purchased for less than $1,000. This proliferation of cameras has led to an increase in companies offering ALPR serves.

The other issues that’s dramatically changing the landscape is an increased awareness of privacy issues arising from ALPR use, and particularly from sharing all of the collected data with a single source.

So today, instead of a parking garage or HOA uploading all of their collected ALPR data to one of the few aggregators, they tend to retain this data locally for their own purposes.

So what does this mean for ALPR use in investigations? It changes how you may think of ALPR. The primary aggregators remain, and you should absolutely start with them. They still receive massive amounts of data, particularly from the repo industry and they have a lot of historical data. In fact the largest aggregator in the US has over 10 billion license plate captures. But you need to pay attention. Does the city have ALPR cameras on the streets? What about parking garages? You need to target locations and routes to check for the presence of traditional and ALPR cameras. Fortunately, ALPR cameras are relatively easy to spot once you know what you are looking for.

If you think that ALPR might be of use in your litigation matters, please don’t hesitate to call us to discuss the matter. We consider ALPR an important investigative tool.

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