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Virginia Towns Using Federally-Funded License Plate Readers To Collect Local Taxes

from the thanks-for-the-exploitable-tech,-US-citizens! dept

Two things remain certain in life: death… and law enforcement agencies using license plate readers obtained with Homeland Security grants for purposes not even remotely related to securing the homeland.

Here’s how Newport News, Virginia’s police department obtained its automatic license plate readers:

Grant money from a terrorism prevention program of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management provided the funding for automatic license plate readers for several Hampton Roads agencies, including Newport News, Suffolk, Norfolk, Williamsburg, James City County, York-Poquoson and Isle of Wight, said Laura Southard, public outreach coordinator for the state’s emergency management department.

Hampton Roads law enforcement departments received $869,000 in 2009, $357,000 in 2010 and $143,000 in 2011 for license plate readers, Southard said.

And here’s what it’s doing with them:

Delinquent taxpayers in Newport News could have their vehicles impounded if new cameras snap a photo of their license plates around town.

In an attempt to claim the nearly $4 million in delinquent personal property taxes owed, the city will soon begin using license plate scanners to find vehicles on which more than $200 in personal property taxes are owed.

The cameras will be mounted to the backs of six sheriff’s department cruisers to automatically read license plate numbers. Those numbers will be cross-searched with a database updated daily of all the license plates in the city with more than $200 in personal property taxes owed, Treasurer Marty Eubank said.

The terms “terrorism” and “drug enforcement” were likely thrown around during the application process, but the end result is the city viewing law enforcement technology as just another revenue generator. A “hit” from the ALPR will result in the vehicle being towed within three days if the delinquent taxes aren’t paid off or a payment plan set up.

While the city has every right to pursue delinquent taxes, it has no business re-purposing federally-purchased law enforcement technology to do so. Citizens concerned about ALPR databases housing millions of non-hit records have always been assured that this technology will be used to fight the baddest of the bad: drug dealers, terrorists, auto thieves, kidnappers, etc. But now it’s being used to collect back taxes — hardly the sort of thing Homeland Security funds should be used for.

Things get even more petty a little down the road in Hampton, Virginia. While Newport News’ enforcement efforts don’t kick in unless more than $200 is owed, Hampton is all about the Lincolns.

Hampton has one camera mounted to a city minivan, not a police vehicle, which is driven around town every week day, said Dave Ellis, field compliance supervisor in the Hampton Treasurer’s Office. When field investigators find a vehicle with a license plate for which more than $5 in property taxes is owed, they first place a warning sticker on the vehicle telling the owner to make contact with the city. If there is no response from the owner after about a week, the investigators go back and remove the license plates or put on a wheel lock, Ellis said.

Hampton’s tax-collecting ALPRs were first deployed in 2008. It’s left unclear how the usually “law enforcement-only” technology ended up in the city’s hands, but most likely a Memorandum of Understanding allowed the transfer of the plate readers. To date, $1.4 million in federal funds have been dispersed to pay for law enforcement’s ALPRs — and now some of them are being used to track down $5 property tax deadbeats.

Isle of Wight doesn’t even bother doing its own tax collection efforts. According to the article, this is outsourced to a private company with its own plate readers, meaning there’s next to zero accountability. Turning a city job private keeps records related to tax collection efforts a little further away from curious constituents and their Freedom of Information requests.

Not that the Hampton Roads law enforcement network is too concerned about overstepping its bounds or potentially violating constitutional rights. As was covered here late last year, these same law enforcement agencies have built their own phone record database — filled with data obtained from subpoenas, warrants and court orders — which is shared between the multiple agencies with no apparent oversight.

Once you get past the re-purposing of federal funds for local tax collection, you arrive at the question of cost effectiveness. Hampton sends its city vehicle out every weekday to troll for plates. On top of the paycheck handed out to the driver(s), there’s fuel and vehicle wear-and-tear costs to be considered, along with whatever’s being paid to maintain the technology and its database. And yet, it seems satisfied to have collected $60,000 in unpaid taxes last year — seemingly “break even” at best.

The bottom line is this: if you want to use ALPRs to catch delinquent taxpayers, then be upfront about this and use local funds to purchase the equipment. Don’t simply use the technology because it’s there. Using federally-funded plate readers is basically asking the rest of the US to fund your local tax collection efforts. And just like when law enforcement deploys these readers, there should be explicit, public information about how the data is collected, retained and destroyed. Sure, law enforcement agencies have been less than open about these factors, but at least they have the (poor) excuse that there are means and methods to protect. The cities doing this don’t have anything to protect — at least nothing that would (supposedly) threaten public safety if it were made known.

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Comments on “Virginia Towns Using Federally-Funded License Plate Readers To Collect Local Taxes”

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28 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

“Using federally-funded plate readers is basically asking the rest of the US to fund your local tax collection efforts.”

The “rest of the US” funds practically the entire economy of the town of Newport News, which as a major hub of the military-industrial complex, depends on Federal contracts for its very existence.

MikeC (profile) says:

Have to admit this doesn't bother me

As a taxpayer who is not delinquent, this doesn’t bother me if the municipality is making up the costs in collections. If they use collection agencies, courts, etc.. it’s going to be more costly.

I admit to not liking the nanny/babysitter/fascist state much at all, but this to me is not a unacceptable use of ALPR technology. Probably more effective that the process of foreclosure, etc.

Now I will admit the caveat that the involved government agency use some kind of common sense way to collect once they’ve ID’d the person/car/location. Impounding a 1500$ car on a 300$ tax bill costing a working person a job that would have paid more in return to the economy is the issue. Never seen most governments do an intelligent job in this kind of situation, that worries me much more.

Anonymous Coward says:

What? They can’t wait up to one year to get their money and back interest — when the taxpayer comes in to get their tags renewed they need to use “valuable” LEO time. I guess that the LEOs aren’t too busy these days since they don’t have to do “all that” investigative work to _solve_ crimes… they just use parallel construction with all the “insignificant” metadata.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They can’t wait up to one year to get their
> money and back interest — when the taxpayer
> comes in to get their tags renewed they need to
> use “valuable” LEO time

I suspect these taxes are city/county property taxes, not state DMV registration fees, and as such won’t show up in the state computers when the person renews their tags.

When I lived in Virginia, not only did I have to pay my state DMV registration fee, but my county assessed a vehicle property tax on top of it. You had to go into the county office and pay for a special window sticker that proved you’d paid your yearly county vehicle tax.

I drew the line when my city decided it didn’t have enough money to spend and added a third vehicle tax on top of the other two. Since I was only going to be living in Virginia for two more years, I just ignored it and figured I’d deal with the consequences if they happened to nail me during that time. I knew the odds were slim that they would (and they never did) because I lived in a high-rise with a secure garage and my car spent 90% of its time off city streets and away from the eyes of the enforcers.

CynicalChris (profile) says:

What magic is this

Maybe I don’t understand the US system, but how do they link a vehicle plate to delinquent property taxes?

Do you have to register your plates when you own property, or do they assume if the address for the vehicle is the same as a delinquent property, they’re linked? If you’re renting a property, could your vehicle be clamped or seized if your landlord owes property taxes?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What magic is this

Nearly all states have what is known as ‘Homestead Exemption’ for property taxes. If it is your prime place of residence, you can register to claim Homestead Exemption. This gives you a tax break on your property for around 20 years.

Many places where you live close to state lines, find that their citizens are buying their car plate tags in other states where it may be much cheaper on the taxes. So now they require as part of the info that you state your driver’s license number as well as your vehicle plate tag number.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What magic is this

South Dakota will register your car, so long as you have a clean title, cheaply, mine cost less than $50, including the title transfer and a late fee as my process took longer that they allow. They do not care where you are registered to live, or even if you have no fixed address.

The issue is, most states won’t let you have a car registered out of state for very long, if you stay there for x amount of time, where x varies by state but is often only a couple of months.

I bought a used motorcycle that had a clean title, but had not been registered (fees paid) for eight years in California. It would have cost more than I paid for the motorcycle to re-register it in California. Registering it in South Dakota, then later registering it in California saved me several thousand dollars.

The whole shebang is money grubbing, especially when you consider that any information you give to DMV is then sold to whomever is willing to pay.

Privacy issues? Better methods for funding government? Less government to fund? Lawmakers making laws cause it’s their job, rather than needed. Law enforcement looking to leverage technology rather than doing their jobs. Whole lotta questions need answering.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What magic is this

The issue is, most states won’t let you
> have a car registered out of state for very
> long, if you stay there for x amount of time,
> where x varies by state but is often only a
> couple of months.

California is absurd– it’s two weeks. They apparently expect you to be at the DMV** registering your car and changing your license before you’re even done unpacking your moving boxes.

**And now that we’re giving drivers licenses to illegals, the lines at the DMV can literally last up to 12-14 hours long.

Virginia Resident says:

Re: What magic is this

You’re referring to real estate tax, which is different from personal property tax, at least in Virginia. Houses and land fall under the real estate tax, while vehicles, inlcuding boats and trailers, are subject to Virginia personal property tax. The tax rates are set by the cities and counties, and the real estate tax rate is much less than the vehicle tax rate. The plate scanners are being used to find vehicles with tax owed on them, not on houses/land. Since the vehicle is registered in the city/county where the tax is paid, it’s not too difficult to cross-reference license plate numbers with personal property tax records.
Back in the 1960s, anything of value was subject to the personal property tax, including silverware, fur coats, and antiques. If the city thought you were holding out on them, they would come to your house and inventory.

Anonymous Coward says:

Hampton has one camera mounted to a city minivan, not a police vehicle, which is driven around town every week day…When field investigators find a vehicle with a license plate for which more than $5 in property taxes is owed…

And how much does it cost to fuel this minivan for its daily drive? I’m betting it’s more than the money recovered.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In generally it would probably be a good idea to require a warrant for any data considered sensitive enough that the public is barred from seeing it.

If someone from the public cannot just go browsing through a database on a whim, neither should anyone else be able to without stating a good reason for it, putting that reason on paper for others to see, and having a third party make sure that the reason is acceptable.

yankinwaoz (profile) says:

I worry about the connection between a property record and a car registration record. Two different systems. Cars and houses are bought and sold all the time. How are these systems synchronized?

God help you if you buy a used car from someone who money on property tax. You could find your car impounded. When you buy a used car, you file a form with the DMV letting them know that you bought a car and that you are not responsible for outstanding traffic tickets or parking tickets. I wonder if this same information protects you from property tax liens.

Woadan (profile) says:

So, they find you owe more than you are allowed to, and they confiscate your vehicle.

Now you can’t get in to work, because they impounded your car.

Now you lose your job, and have to allow your house to be foreclosed upon.

Clearly somebody did little thinking about the ramifications. Or they thought about them and decided to ignore them.

Leo says:

Re: Re:

They just don’t care! Its not about thinking of the ramifications. Its about control over we the people. Its just that simple. We have elected city/county,state and federal tyrants. We got what we wanted/elected. Take back the control as they have overreached their bounds and will only go for more. Up to now, they have basically been unchallenged.

willymae says:

This is taking property without due process and is illegal.
This is misappropriation of funds- illegal.
This is deceptive practices- illegal.
What if the reader reads wrong? It happened to me on a toll road. I got a bill because the person reading the picture was stupid and typed the wrong letter on the plate ID. Took 3 months to clear it up!
This is all kinds of wrong!

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

They Have Difficulty Collecting Revenue Through Ordinary Channels.

Well, of course, Newport News is a Navy town. What that means is that there are thousands of sailors, living in government quarters, shopping in the government PX, who are only taxable via their wheels. However, sailors do have a disproportionate tendency to buy a Corvette, or something like that. Hence the desperation measures to collect tax on automobiles. I do know that the Navy has an active concern about car dealers using unfair tactics to sell automobiles to sailors.

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