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License Plate Data Increasingly Used In Drug Investigations, Report Shows

Taylor Dobbs
VPR File Photo
A new report shows that police are increasingly turning to the state's database of license plate scans to investigate drug crimes.

A new state report shows that police in Vermont are changing the way they use automatic license plate readers.

Every time a police cruiser equipped with a license plate reader drives past another vehicle, it takes a photo and records the license plate and the time and location that the photo was taken.

The state maintains a database that stores every single plate read dating back 18 months. In total, that’s more than 8 million data points about when and where police passed different vehicles.

In past years, the top use of that data was in missing person cases, and police weren’t having much success using the data to solve crime.

According to the new report from the Vermont Intelligence Center, which maintains the statewide database, that changed in 2016. Last year, drug investigations were the most common reason police searched the data.

Burlington Police chief Brandon del Pozo says the data reflect that police are learning how to better use this relatively new technology.

“I think that there was a realization that license plate readers can offer insight into narcotics trafficking patterns,” he said. “I think it’s a realization that investigators have really come to appreciate in the last year or two, and I think the important thing that they’ve realized is that it’s a request that can’t possibly detract from an investigation, it can only make it more fulsome.”

Burlington investigators are using the system more often. Last year, the department made 62 requests for the data compared to just 34 in 2015.

Del Pozo emphasized that Burlington police don’t use data collected by the technology to enforce traffic violations or catch people with expired registrations.

“We’re not using it for that,” he said. “The goal is not to be more intrusive into the lives of every day Vermonters for the purposes of enforcing the traffic law. It really is to look at these serious crimes that involve inter-state travel or travel between cities in Vermont.”

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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