Houston employs automated traffic enforcement tool

wcrenshaw@macon.comJanuary 12, 2014 

WARNER ROBINS -- If you are driving around Houston County with no insurance, you don’t want to get anywhere near Cpl. Justin Hall’s patrol vehicle.

Whichever direction you may be going in relation to the sheriff deputy’s Chevy Suburban, there’s a good chance you will shortly see blue lights flashing.

For more than a year, Hall has used the county’s only automatic tag reader system. It has worked well enough that the county recently bought a second one for $16,000 that will be installed soon.

Capt. Ronnie Harlowe, head of the sheriff’s patrol division, said he hopes to eventually have at least one vehicle with the system on the road at all times.

“It’s like having another deputy in the car,” he said.

Two high-speed cameras mounted on the hood take photos of the tags of vehicles, even those coming from the opposite direction. A camera on the driver’s side points to the rear, while the other camera points forward on the passenger’s side.

Within seconds, Hall gets an alert if there is an issue associated with a tag. One of the most common is a suspended registration, which is often the result of lapsed insurance.

Hall said he has trouble getting to a particular location without the system alerting.

“It’s extremely effective,” he said. “It’s a force multiplier.”

The system is also used by other law enforcement agencies in Middle Georgia, including Bibb and Dooly counties and Byron police.

The American Civil Liberties Union has raised privacy issues over the use of the system, but Hall said there is a misconception over how it works. It does not run each person’s tag, sending back the name and address of law-abiding drivers.

Instead, it takes a photo of the tag of each car, then that number with compared to the Georgia Crime Information Center’s hot list of tags with issues. The system scans about 5,000 tags per day.

“It’s an automated process of what officers have already been doing for years,” he said. “It’s like having a car full of deputies.”

In fact, a car full of deputies couldn’t do what Hall was doing with the system as he demonstrated it Thursday evening. On Watson Boulevard, he parked in a turn lane in an area where there are no turnoffs so he wouldn’t obstruct traffic. While he was using his handheld radar to check for speeders, the cameras on each side of the vehicle snapped photos of the tags of each car going in both directions.

The system has its own computer, which uses Hall’s laptop for a monitor, flashing up the photos of the tags as they are taken.

Over about 30 minutes, it only alerted once, which Hall said was unusual. That alert was for a stolen vehicle, but he was able to determine immediately that it was the wrong car.

The stolen vehicle was from Michigan, but Hall could see from the photo that the tag had a Georgia license plate. The system can’t distinguish states, only the tag number, so that’s something he has to check before pulling someone over.

Even if the tag matches, he doesn’t write tickets based on what the system says. Various errors can wrongly get a tag on the hot list, so he makes the same checks any law enforcement officer would ordinarily make to be sure the charge is valid.

While most of the tickets he writes as a result of using the system are misdemeanors, it also has resulted in arrests for more serious crimes.

“There is a considerable amount of felony activity that is observed, detected and prosecuted because of this machine,” he said. “We may stop a car because it has no insurance, but then in the car we have found anabolic steroids, crack cocaine and stolen items involving burglaries.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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