Bud Kennedy

Some police plate readers see all — and sell your info

License plate readers check for warrants, but who keeps the info?
License plate readers check for warrants, but who keeps the info? Star-Telegram archives

Private companies have found a new way to get into your wallet and your life.

And the Texas Legislature made it possible.

When lawmakers voted in 2015 to allow officers to use license-plate readers to collect unpaid fines on the spot, there is no indication they foresaw any abuse.

But now, officers in a couple of cities and counties south of Austin are using plate readers to stop drivers with warrants and collect their fines — plus a hefty 25 percent commission, with that money and motorists’ valuable data going to the private company that makes the plate readers.

You probably know by now that the police cruiser in the next lane isn’t tracking your speed — it’s automatically reading and checking your plate.

If your car is among the 10 percent connected to an unpaid traffic warrant, then police might stop it to see who’s driving.

In the city of Kyle, south of Austin, and in Guadalupe County, among others, you’ll be given a choice to pay with a credit card on the spot instead of going to jail.

That’s definitely more convenient. But the price for this convenience is sky-high: a 25 percent surcharge, and the private company can also resell all collected data on all drivers and keep the details about the system and contract secret, according to legal documents gathered by the California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

A few years ago, when lawmakers found that prison pay phones were generating outlandish service charges and exploiting a captive audience, they intervened.

In the same way, motorists stopped by California-based Vigilant Solutions’ equipment are sitting ducks. They can pay the overdue fine plus the surcharge, or be taken to jail.

In Kyle, that’s about an extra $50 per violation for the company.

Lawmakers originally said the system would save officers time — true — but justice reformers were concerned that collections would become the focus over traffic patrol.

EFF warned that “To Protect and Serve” would become “To Stop and Swipe.”

Kyle Mayor Todd Webster said he was also originally concerned that the system would divert officers’ time to collections, but he’s had “absolutely zero feedback.”

“This is only for people with unpaid warrants, and it’s a way to put a dent in our backlog,” he said. The city has $4.8 million in uncollected fines, a city spokeswoman said.

Privacy advocates’ concerns focus more on the ownership and rights to resell the plate-reader data, apparently on all motorists checked regardless of warrant status.

For comparison, the North Texas Tollway Authority adamantly guards all plate-reader data and does not track or sell any information.

“The use of data is definitely a concern,” Webster said, speaking by phone.

“That was never discussed at council.”

The eyes of Texas are definitely upon us.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.