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Drivers worry about privacy with new license plate readers

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Updated: 7/26/2013 11:34 pm
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Somewhere along I-295 near Commonwealth Avenue, eyes are on your vehicle.

Last month, the Florida Department of Transportation put two license plate readers along the southbound lane. A spokesman tells Action News that the system collects partial plate numbers to help monitor traffic levels and speed.

Their purpose is very different than many law enforcement agencies that have signed on in recent years to test the system in local neighborhoods.

The Police Executive Research Forum says 85 percent of law enforcement agencies across the country will use license plate readers in the next five years.

Their intended primary purpose is to aid in searches for stolen vehicles, Amber Alerts and to catch suspected criminals.

This week, U.S. Marshals and from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania came to Northeast Florida to look for Dr. Robert Ferrante after a warrant for his arrest was issued Wednesday.

Ferrante is a University of Pittsburgh professor and researcher who is accused of killing his wife in April by lacing her fertility vitamins with cyanide.

U.S. Marshals thought Ferrante was staying with his sister in St. Augustine, but when they arrived at the home he was gone.

A nationwide BOLO, or be on the lookout notice, was issued to law enforcement agencies nationwide at approximately 6:30 p.m. Thursday, and his license plate number was added to the National Crime Information Center log of wanted persons.

Moments later, Ferrante's vehicle crossed into West Virginia and right by a new stationary license plate reader.

"Without that system, honestly, he probably would not have been located," said Lt. Doug Gunnoe of the West Virginia State Police.

"We would have had to have seen him, had reason to pull him over, and even then we probably would not have run his name through the NCIC database. If we had, it would have been just plain luck."

Gunnoe says Ferrante's plate number triggered the system and officers nearby were notified. They set up a road block near the next toll booth a few miles away, and soon apprehended Ferrante at gunpoint. He is said to have been compliant with their requests.

The West Virginia State Police insists it only tracks vehicles connected to a serious crime, like in the case of Ferrante.

"This isn't for shop-lifters. This is for serious emergencies only. We don't track just anyone. There has to be a very good reason and their plate number has to be entered into a separate system than our local system."

While local police agencies have tested the technology, cost and privacy concerns are mainly why they haven't committed to purchasing the system.

The FDOT installed the license plate readers along I-295 in late June. They are now testing the system for accuracy against cameras that are already being used. Their test is expected to continue for about another year.

Action News is told the exact location of license plate readers is rarely revealed to protect the equipment from vandalism.

Robert Ferrante is now charged with criminal homicide and is being held in a West Virginia jail awaiting extradition to Pittsburgh.
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