Hanahan license plate cameras renew privacy-safety debate

By Stacy

HANAHAN, S.C. (WCIV) -- The quiet Hanahan area of Otranto has a new neighbor watching over it. Hanahan Police installed automated license plate readers at two entrances to the neighborhood last week.

"Eagle Landing and Otranto is about a quarter of the city. This area is safe and quiet, and it gives us the ability to keep it safe and quiet," Hanahan Police Chief Mike Cochran said.

The new readers take photos of the back of every car entering or leaving the development, he said. The photos get sent to a State Law Enforcement Division database for analysis and storage.

"[These are] digital stills and then it would just give us the ability, should your vehicle get stolen or should be a burglary. It's an investigative tool," Cochran said.

Once the camera takes the picture, it sends it like a picture text message to the SLED database. SLED officials would not release any copies of the photos. They said the camera takes a picture of the back of the car, including the license plate.

At first mention, neighbor Kody King questioned whether the cameras violated privacy. But then he realized the enforcement benefits.

"It could be good because I've actually had a trailer stolen out of my yard," King said.

Otranto resident Paul Lewis agreed.

"Anything they can do to stop crime, I'm happy with," he said.

But the director of South Carolina's American Civil Liberties Union said the cameras shouldn't be taking pictures of every car that goes by. She has worked with colleagues around the country to ensure the ALPRs and other new technologies are regulated.

"You want to have protocols in place which officers will have access, how the video is reviewed, how long it's stored, how it's disposed of. You don't want improper surveillance of citizens when they're doing nothing wrong, 24/7," said Victoria Middleton, ACLU of South Carolina director.

SLED spokesman Thom Berry said the state database kept the photos for three years and that investigators needed a documented reason to look at them. However, officers did not require a warrant to view them, he said. South Carolina does not share its records with a federal database, he said.

Though the ACLU's Middleton questioned whether that was true.

Middleton said awareness was the best defense of citizens' privacy. She encouraged citizens to tell their government representatives what they think.

Twenty-eight agencies in the state check the database, according to SLED. Eight of those agencies are in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties.

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