SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Stationary license plate readers could be posted along multiple interstates in Arizona and Utah as part of an expanding federal drug enforcement program.
The readers are used to alert local law enforcement when a suspected drug trafficker is in their area and can also help catch suspected kidnappers, said Gary Newcomb, an information technology supervisor with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Because the information is stored by the DEA for two years, it can also strengthen a criminal case against a person who is caught with drugs or money in their car.
Newcomb said the DEA focuses on north-south interstate “hubs” that most people pass while traveling to or from the southern border. Currently, the agency is planning to install new stationary readers along I-15 in Beaver County and Washington County in Utah, I-40 near Flagstaff, Ariz., and I-93 near Kingman, Ariz.
The information gathering and storage prompted serious concerns from Utah lawmakers, who grilled Newcomb during an hour-long committee hearing Wednesday. The lawmakers, who have to authorize the use of state-owned light or power poles along Interstate 15, also requested a second hearing next month before signing off on the proposal.
Chief among the worries was the violation of privacy and the use of the information for purposes besides drug enforcement. Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said that a lot of Utah residents travel to Nevada casinos but many would prefer to keep that a secret because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints forbids gambling.
The concerns were raised despite the use of the stationary readers since 2008 by the DEA on near the Mexican border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Similar mobile readers have also been used by hundreds of police agencies throughout the country, including in Utah, for nearly a decade.
Utah lawmakers have balked previously at tactics such as police issuing tickets from a traffic camera and many on the legislative committee, including Waddoups, were shocked to learn that police are using mobile readers to track people.
“From a drug perspective, for interdiction and law enforcement, this sounds wonderful,” Waddoups said. “From the public relations aspect and government intrusion into public life, I hate this. It sounds awful.”
Supporters of the readers, such as Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel, agreed with the privacy concerns but promised the information wouldn’t be misused. Instead, it would be an important way to catch traffickers — whether they are hauling drugs into Utah or taking marijuana grown by Mexican cartels on illegal farms in the state — before they can get the drugs into the community.
“I was very concerned about it the first time I heard, whether it was a big brother issue,” Noel said. “But (scanners) are already in use in other parts of the state, and it’s an effective tool.”