Cops Getting Free License Plate Readers In Exchange For 25% Of The 'Take' And All The Driver Data Vigilant Can Slurp

from the an-equitable-partnership dept

What happens when you lower the barriers to entry? More participants join the market. It works everywhere, even when the market is “law enforcement” and the “customers” are everyone else.

Vigilant Solutions, one of the country’s largest brokers of vehicle surveillance technology, is offering a hell of a deal to law enforcement agencies in Texas: a whole suite of automated license plate reader (ALPR) equipment and access to the company’s massive databases and analytical tools—and it won’t cost the agency a dime.


Vigilant is leveraging H.B. 121, a new Texas law passed in 2015 that allows officers to install credit and debit card readers in their patrol vehicles to take payment on the spot for unpaid court fines, also known as capias warrants. When the law passed, Texas legislators argued that not only would it help local government with their budgets, it would also benefit the public and police.

Well, we can see how this will benefit law enforcement and others on the government food chain, but it’s unclear how this will benefit the public. The bill’s sponsor said the law would “relieve the burden” of having their vehicles impounded or being jailed for unpaid fines. But beyond those vague perks, the benefits seem to flow mostly in one direction.

The EFF quotes legal blogger Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast, who speculated the combination of license plate readers and credit card readers would push cops towards chasing down unpaid fines rather than enforcing traffic laws or performing more routine patrol duties. If so — and it appears to be the case — this is exactly the outcome Vigilant was expecting. It didn’t hand out its tech for free. There may be no price tag on the plate readers at the point of purchase, but that’s only because Vigilant has points on the back end.

The “warrant redemption” program works like this. The agency gets no-cost license plate readers as well as free access to LEARN-NVLS, the ALPR data system Vigilant says contains more than 2.8-billion plate scans and is growing by more than 70 million scans a month. This also includes a wide variety of analytical and predictive software tools.

The government agency in turn gives Vigilant access to information about all its outstanding court fees, which the company then turns into a hot list to feed into the free ALPR systems. As police cars patrol the city, they ping on license plates associated with the fees. The officer then pulls the driver over and offers them a devil’s bargain: go to jail, or pay the original fine with an extra 25% processing fee tacked on, all of which goes to Vigilant.

To make this relationship even more explicit, officers who issue tickets to parked vehicles rather than drivers leave a note instructing them to visit Vigilant’s website to pay the fine. On top of the 25% fee, Vigilant also gets to collect massive amounts of sweet, sweet driver data, which it can then sell to other law enforcement agencies (database access licenses) and private firms (insurance companies, repo men, etc.). And, if the locals seem understaffed, Vigilant is more than happy to pick up the slack.

In early December 2015, Vigilant issued a press release bragging that Guadalupe County had used the systems to collect on more than 4,500 warrants between April and December 2015. In January 2016, the City of Kyle signed an identical deal with Vigilant. Soon after, Guadalupe County upgraded the contract to allow Vigilant to dispatch its own contractors to collect on capias warrants.

As the EFF points out, this freemium service benefits Vigilant and law enforcement, but does very little for the general public… including protect them from Vigilant’s inability to perform its job competently.

During the second week of December, as part of its Warrant Redemption Program, Vigilant Solutions sent several warrant notices – on behalf of our law enforcement partners – in error to citizens across the state of Texas. A technical error caused us to send warrant notices to the wrong recipients.

These types of mistakes are not acceptable and we deeply apologize to those who received the warrant correspondence in error and to our law enforcement customers.

Apologies are nice, if of limited utility, but…

[T]he company has not disclosed the extent of the error, how many people were affected, how much money was collected that shouldn’t have been, and what it’s doing to inform and make it up to the people affected.

As has been discussed here before, turning law enforcement agencies into revenue-focused entities is a bad idea. Case in point: asset forfeiture. Further case in point: speed trap towns. Improper incentives lead to improper behavior. Agencies may like the idea of a “free” license plate reader, but the price still has to be paid by someone — and that “someone” is going to be the general public.

As priorities shift towards ensuring ongoing use of the “free” ALPRs, other criminal activity is likely to receive less law enforcement attention. Unpaid fines and fees are in law enforcement’s wheelhouse, but should never become its raison d’etre. Once it does, the whole community suffers. Anything that could be implemented to lower crime rates would also serve to lower revenue, making it far less likely to be implemented. Fewer infractions mean fewer opportunities to collect court fees. And while the legislators pushing the new law Vigilant is leveraging talked a good game about sending fewer people to overcrowded jails, the governments overseeing these agencies still have budgets to meet and law enforcement to lean on to ensure this happens. Actually achieving the bill’s stated aims would mean a steady reduction in court fees, which would lead to the loss of “free” plate readers. And no one wants that, at least not on the government side of things.

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Comments on “Cops Getting Free License Plate Readers In Exchange For 25% Of The 'Take' And All The Driver Data Vigilant Can Slurp”

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Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: Re:

I understand that already from reading Techdirt. I can’t help thinking that all this frantic cash-grabbing is down to:

a) a lack of jobs that pay well – admin pays better than “joe” jobs, and government jobs tend to be well paid

b) underfunding of agencies with heavy workloads. Result: they cast about looking for revenue sources to keep the agency afloat

c) unwillingness on the part of local, state, and the federal government to put an end to this on the grounds that it’d leave a lot of people unemployed and therefore wouldn’t sit well with voters

d) there’s a fair amount of public money (from various revenue streams) floating about and security and surveillance businesses are trying to get their share of it

Let’s assume all that is true; the problem is a matter of economics. The market isn’t sorting it out because it’s not the market’s job to sort it out. Therefore relying on the market to sort it out is flippin’ stupid.

Okay, then, what do we do?

a) leave the status quo alone in the hope that it’ll sort itself out eventually


b) initiate a grownup conversation with the electorate, explain what’s going on in non-partisan terms (that’ll be hard, I know), then ask them what they want to do about it.

One thing is certain: our existing ideologies don’t have an answer to this. We need a new one that describes the world we live in accurately and offers evidence-based solutions without resorting to partisanship or culture wars tropes. I tell you, when you’ve arrived at the point where you’re willing to do that, you will see change for the better.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

We need a new one that describes the world we live in accurately and offers evidence-based solutions without resorting to partisanship or culture wars tropes.

The difficulty is, most people don’t seem to want that. We can see this by the way they consistently vote for people who lie to them by telling them there are simple solutions that won’t require any sacrifices from them, over people who tell them the truth. And then they get mad that these problems aren’t getting solved. Sigh.

Anon E. Mous (profile) says:

” During the second week of December, as part of its Warrant Redemption Program, Vigilant Solutions sent several warrant notices – on behalf of our law enforcement partners – in error to citizens across the state of Texas. A technical error caused us to send warrant notices to the wrong recipients. “

” These types of mistakes are not acceptable and we deeply apologize to those who received the warrant correspondence in error and to our law enforcement customers. “

Customers? Don’t they mean victims?

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There are no victims! How dare you suggest such a thing. It’s defamation I tell you.

Terminology note:

Customers* == a police department doing business with Vigilant Solutions.

Criminals == any other persons not part of the police department or employed by Vigilant Solutions.

* eventual plans are that ‘Customers’ (aka ‘law enforcement’) will become a wholly owned subsidiary just as legislative, executive and judicial functions already are.

A Non-Mouse says:

Re: I see a future business

“in plate overlays that do not make human-unreadable but machine unreadable.”

Sorry, they already exist. For a cheap, DIY version you can cut out a piece of PC privacy screen and put it over your plate. From directly behind the plate is visible, but from an angle (like when an LPR-equipped vehicle passes you) it’s blurred out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: I see a future business

in my state of Colorado, covering a license plate with anything is illegal.

Likewise in Texas. In fact, the law is so poorly written that some car-dealer-supplied frames, which do not obstruct viewing of anything necessary to enforce the law, are illegal. For example, if you cannot see all the pretty artwork along the edges, the frame is illegal, even though all that should matter are the active features on the plate: state, plate numbers/letters, expiration.

streetlight (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 I see a future business

“covering a license plate with anything is illegal.”

Is it illegal to drive in a snow storm?

In Colorado, it’s illegal to drive in a snowstorm if you don’t have the right kind of tires or traction gear (chains). If drivers block traffic or skid off the road and don’t have the proper traction the fine is something like $600 or more. Commercial vehicles must carry chains, whether it’s snowing or not, from something like Oct. 1 to May 31. The fine there is $1,000. Accidents have decreased greatly since this law was enforced.

David Aitken says:

Re: Re: Re:3 I see a future business

It’s also true that the CDOT director can issue whatever regs he/she wants:
42-4-228 (5) (a) No person shall drive or move a motor vehicle on any highway unless such vehicle is equipped with tires in safe operating condition in accordance with this subsection (5) and any supplemental rules and regulations promulgated by the executive director of the department.
(b) The executive director of the department shall promulgate such rules as the executive director deems necessary setting forth requirements of safe operating conditions for tires. These rules shall be utilized by law enforcement officers for visual inspection of tires and shall include methods for simple gauge measurement of tire tread depth.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 I see a future business

Is it illegal to drive in a snow storm?

No, it’s illegal to drive with your license plate covered. It’s your responsibility to ensure that it’s not obscured, by snow or anything else. Now, whether you would ever be pulled over for a snow-covered license plate is another story. I’ve never heard of it but I’m sure it’s happened.

Zonker says:

Re: In other words...

Highway Robbery. A crime previously committed by highwaymen on horseback and for a while had been curtailed by the use of armed constables who would patrol the roads to protect the travelers from robbery. Highwaymen were noted to have threatened their victims with phrases like “Stand and deliver (your purse/money)” in the 17th century, and later “Your money or your life!” around the 18th century.

If only we had such an organization of constables tasked to protect the public in America today from these highwaymen, previously thought to have been eliminated in Western countries around the 19th century.

Anonymous Coward says:

Classic product development move.

They will probably combine license plate data with analytics they buy from online carriers, and then sell “enhanced” products six months from now. I predict it will include things that every law enforcement agent needs like: sexual preference, political affiliation, religion, tax status, race etc. etc. etc.

IOW: Texas law enforcement is about to become a franchise of Vigilant. Not that this should surprise anyone. It IS Texas. I expect they will add a Taco bell and KFC at the department of motor vehicles soon to go with it.

Can I get fries with that beat down please?

Anonymous Coward says:

Policing for profit now has a new game. One that will have a limited lifetime run, unlike speed and red light cameras.

It took the public a long time to marshal the wherewithal to start eliminating red light cameras. But that has gotten some push. This policing for profit style will end with automated cars which are well into their development. Who do you give the ticket to when the owner is the car maker or another company similar to a taxi service? Face it the expense of auto driving cars will put them out of reach of much of the public in the next decade after politicians get going on what should be included for safety reasons and the continual creep of inflation. As an example when was the last time you bought a new car for $2000? That’s what my mother paid in 1970 for a new one. Today that might be the price of a junker.

The last thing to say on this is over the long haul this will again create more ill will towards city officials and LEOs. Many aren’t paying not because they don’t want to but paying a fine comes at the cost of the family doesn’t eat or pay it’s monthly bills. That’s not going to give LEOs a shining reputation over the long haul.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

$2,000.00 in 1970 had the same buying power as $12,456.87 in 2015.

I used 2015 since 2016 is hardly started. Also, I recall cars in 1970 — radios, electric windows/door locks, remote trunk release, electric side mirrors all were OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT (as are on MOST cars today)


nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Also, I recall cars in 1970 — radios, electric windows/door locks, remote trunk release, electric side mirrors all were OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT (as are on MOST cars today)

In 1970, most or at least many cars didn’t have power windows, power locks, trunk release, remote gas door release, or power windows available. Radios were optional on some cars, as in maybe it wouldn’t have a radio at all. Many, perhaps most, cars didn’t have air conditioning. In 2015, most cars are not available without power windows, locks, mirrors, trunk and gas release, and air conditioning. Very few are available without an audio system. The list of features available on an ordinary car that didn’t exist on any car in 1970 is enormous.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

During the normal course of year in and year out I’d say you were correct but I’d like to call your attention to the present political horse race. All the sponsored horses aren’t doing as well as those who are not sponsored. Maybe that won’t remain that way but today they are putting on a good show.

Much of the rich are bitching that they are not getting their money’s worth because the horses they backed aren’t up and front centered, leading the pack.

Instead the voters are pissed at how things have been done and who is not listening to them. There is a damn good chance that neither of the sponsored horses are going to make the start line. It would not hurt my feelings to see their issue of money in politics take a back seat to voters saying enough.

English Reader says:

ALPR readers

ALPRs have been a regular thing in the UK for about eight years now. Police officers have the ability to scan a licence plate and get instant information about the vehicle’s insurance and road tax status. This can also provide the details of the registered owner for the police officers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: ALPR readers

Happens in Australia too, with the added excuse of it allows the LEO to know whether the registered owner who is possibly the driver (but not the passengers) is one of those tough, nasty outlaw motorcycle gang members & what form of action should be put into place if they decide to pull them over, in-case they get attacked. Gang warfare has become more high tech, with the ‘official’ gangs with guns trying to outdo the ‘unofficial’ gangs with guns.
Hiring a vehicle to carry out enforcements stops the bigger gang from interfering with their ‘business’.

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