Carlsbad police pleased with license-plate readers

Carlsbad switched on the last of its new automated license-plate readers last week, and within days the devices led to the discovery of three stolen vehicles and the arrest of three suspects.

The city has installed the stationary license-plate reading cameras on utility poles at 14 key intersections, and added mobile ones to six patrol cars, under a contract the city approved in March. The system also can be used to solve burglaries, find wanted suspects and locate missing persons, said Carlsbad police Capt. Mickey Williams.

“We’re very happy with it,” he said Thursday.

Not everyone was happy when the city approved the system, which was budgeted for about $1 million. Some Carlsbad residents and representatives of groups such as the ACLU have said license-plate readers could be misused to violate an individual’s privacy or civil liberties.

Carlsbad officials have said their policy will strictly limit access to the data in the system and delete it after a year, except for information that is used in an investigation and may be needed in court.

More than 200 agencies in California, including the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, use the devices, which track information the courts have said is public. Before launching the system, the Carlsbad Police Department held a series of 10 community meetings to explain to residents what license-plate readers can and can’t do.

“We had an overwhelmingly positive response, especially once people learned the facts,” Williams said.

“It’s important for everyone to know there is no personal identifying information (in the system),” he said. “There is no way to learn the driver or the registered owner with it.”

The reader only records the plate number and compares it to a list of stored numbers for vehicles associated with some kind of crime. A police dispatcher is contacted within seconds when there is a match.

That happened twice on Dec. 22 in the area of State Street and Carlsbad Boulevard. In one incident, the vehicle was located at a nearby motel. The vehicle’s two occupants ran, but were quickly stopped and arrested on multiple charges. The car was returned to its owner in Encinitas. In the other incident that day, the driver fled into Oceanside, and officers abandoned the pursuit after the suspect drove recklessly into oncoming traffic.

Another stolen car was recovered Tuesday morning near College Boulevard and Tamarack Avenue. The driver was arrested, and the car was returned to its owner in San Marcos.

Oceanside and Escondido police departments also use license-plate readers, but only in patrol cars. Oceanside considered installing fixed readers around the harbor area in 2015, but did not proceed with the plan.

Carlsbad installed its first mobile license-plate readers in 2011, and now has them in eight police vehicles. The stationary readers have been installed over the last few months.

More information about the Carlsbad system, including a list of intersections where the cameras are installed and the policies followed for their use, is on the city’s website at

Twitter: @phildiehl

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