New police number plate scanner eyes criminals

You know that anxious feeling you get whenever a police car is behind you?

For bad guys traveling the Ga. 400 corridor, that feeling is about to get a whole lot worse.

Alpharetta and Sandy Springs police departments have a new gizmo that mounts on patrol cars and is capable of reading up to 18 to 20 number plates a second, and detecting which ones the police need to stop.

The number plate reader can scan number plates in the hurly-burly of Ga. 400 ó going in both directions. It can accurately read number plates of cars going 120 mph in rain, dark, or sunshine.

"Itís a great thing" said Alpharetta Public Safety Director Gary George. "Think of Amber Alerts, stolen cars, outstanding warrants."

Alpharetta and Sandy Springs each have one number plate reader, which costs $24,500 to $29,000, but several cars are already set up for it.

"We keep it on the road constantly," said spokesman George Gordon. "You can unplug it and transfer to another car in two minutes."

Alpharetta Police Officer Peter Allen said that a few weeks after the system went online last June, he was driving home after a shift when the system alerted him that he had passed a stolen car. He turned around, gave chase, and arrested the thief.

"I never even saw the number plates myself," Gordon said. "I would have just kept going. It catches things I would be unable to see."

Itís helped find a dead body in a stolen car in New York. In New Haven, police used them to catch tax evaders. In a four-month trial in Ohio, the highway patrol captured 17 suspects, and recovered 19 stolen cars.

Number plate readers are becoming more common across US states.

The number plate reader is not a Big Brother-type surveillance device, George said. It scans and discards the license tags on cars that have no warrants on them, hanging only on to wanted number plates in the police database. Even if it did store all the number plates it encountered, the number plate reader still would not be an invasion of privacy, he said.

The number plate reader works using infrared light to illuminate plates across four lanes of traffic, two on each side. A camera snaps a picture and the computer converts it into digital characters and compares them with an FBI list of wanted or missing number plates. An updated list is downloaded daily into the officerís car computer.

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