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Ocean County may share massive surveillance database with feds

The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office is attempting to expand its ability beyond county borders to pinpoint wrongdoers on the road, and give the federal government access to the county’s database as needed.

Traffic jam with rows of cars
Aleksandra Glustsenko, ThinkStock

A “memorandum of understanding” to be voted on Wednesday by county freeholders will decide whether to enter into an agreement with the Drug Enforcement Administration and share data collected by automated license plate readers installed at fixed locations and on law enforcement vehicles.

“The Department of Justice wanted a formal agreement to be acknowledged by the governing body of the county to allow that sharing to happen,” said Ocean County Administrator Carl Block.

Block described the pending agreement as an effort by Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato to strengthen the county’s fight against drug abuse. Ocean County has seen dozens of fatal overdoses in 2017 so far.

The readers can alert law enforcement of a “hit” when a scanned license plate is linked to offenses such as unpaid parking tickets or serious crimes. In drug-related cases, even if an alleged dealer or trafficker is in custody, law enforcement can input the license plate number of a suspect’s vehicle and track its past locations. The trail doesn’t always end locally.

“You catch a trafficker here, but he’s linked to someone in North Jersey, and that North Jersey person is linked to New York, who’s linked to Columbia,” Block said. “How do you track that? How do you get help? You go to the DEA.”

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A New Jersey 101.5 report in March 2015 noted 15 police departments in Ocean County use license plate readers. The prosecutor’s office has a camera system as well; it’s portable and is only installed on a car during special enforcement details, according to spokesman Al Della Fave.

Iris Bromberg, transparency attorney for American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the use of ALPR technology raises serious concerns. When used for narrowly-tailored purposes, she said, the readers provide a major benefit for law enforcement. But the tracking of everyday New Jerseyans’ routines and whereabouts conflicts with the core democratic principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

“Simply put, the government shouldn’t invade our privacy and collect information about our everyday activities just in case we do something,” Bromberg said. “When we see these local and federal law enforcement agencies build pools together, what we’re actually seeing is construction of a de facto national database about our whereabouts.”

In New Jersey, ALPR data is to be retained for five years.

Della Fave said the prosecutor’s office initiative simply improves the coordination of communicating and sharing critical existing criminal investigative information. In no way will it be utilized “to mine or develop new criminal investigations,” he said.

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