“Big Brother in paradise. Who would have thunk it?”
So reads one of the comments posted by people on social media regarding recently installed equipment designed to photograph license plates as vehicles pass through Holmes Beach.
The system alerts the Holmes Beach Police Department to license plates of vehicles that could be stolen or driven by someone with a revoked or suspended license, according to HBPD Chief Bill Tokajer.
“Chances are, someone with a suspended license has also done other things,” Tokajer said. “We get a lot of people that we arrest for other crimes, such as narcotics, that have suspended licenses.”
There are two cameras installed on Manatee Avenue, two cameras on Gulf Drive and one on East Bay Drive.
The cameras capture the rear of the vehicle and the tag, but not the driver’s photo.
Tokajer said April 25 that the software system does not track and store the license plates of everyone who crosses the city boundaries. Rather, the service, provided by Vigilant Solutions of Livermore, California, sends “alerts” to the HBPD, which verifies the information through Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation databases before reacting.
“They don’t just see that it comes up as a hit and pull a car over,” he said. “They only pull the car over after they have checked that it is still a car of concern, still a person of concern.”
A camera installed on Manatee Avenue alerted the HBPD April 18, several hours after the system went live, of a tag on a stolen vehicle from Orlando heading west into Holmes Beach, then alerted again as the vehicle crossed into Bradenton Beach.
BBPD located the car and the HBPD assisted in the stop near the Gulf Drive Cafe on Gulf Drive. The car was an unreturned rental and no arrest was made, although the vehicle was reported stolen Feb. 25 by the rental company.
The rental company was contacted and the car was towed.
“We pulled the car over two months after it was reported stolen,” Tokajer said. “Using a car and not paying for it is a valid stolen car. So the system did its job.”
Another media outlet reported a similar instance occurred in November 2018, in Contra Costa County, California, when the driver of a rental car that was reported stolen in October was detained in November, after the sheriff’s department received an alert.
The driver filed a federal lawsuit in December 2018 against the sheriff’s department, alleging his civil rights had been violated, also claiming a warrantless search of his car had been conducted and excessive force had been used.
“The license plate reader did its job,” Tokajer said. “The failing in this was the state’s fault by not removing the car out of the database.”
The chief said the HBPD has been getting hits on the system about every five minutes and must discern whether to investigate.
“We are not going to be pulling a car over every five minutes. We’re doing other things,” Tokajer said.
He said an investigation would be prompted if, upon verification, the information provided by Vigilant matches the information in state and federal databases.
People also have commented that the cameras are another way for the city to incur revenue from traffic infractions, such as speeding or running a red light.
“This is not a camera that is put there to gain revenue,” Tokajer said. “This is an investigative tool to alert us to the criminal element that is coming on the island.”