Miami Beach Cops Scanned at Least 11.3 Million License Plates Last Year

Miami Beach Police want to install controversial license-plate readers permanently on the city's causeways. But it's difficult to imagine how the department's plate-reading dragnet could possibly get bigger: According to data New Times obtained from MBPD, the department sucked up data from at least 11,388,106 license plates in the past year.

The data provides a rare glimpse at the size of one wing of the department's surveillance operations. As of 2015, Miami Beach had an official population of 92,312, which means the department collected personal data on a group of people 124 times the size of its own city.

That's not even a complete dataset. MBPD spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez says the 11.3 million doesn't include plates scanned by stationary readers on the Venetian Causeway, for example. The total number of plate scans is likely far higher than the 11.3 million figure.

But MBPD Chief Dan Oates said last week he's part of a group of police executives asking the Florida Legislature for more plate readers. Oates told WSVN last week he wants to install plate readers on every causeway leading into the barrier island. The department will also roll out more plate readers in March to patrol the swollen and rowdy spring break crowds, after a May 2016 city commission decision allowed the department to use plate readers on any crowd larger than 5,000 people.

But in light of the sheer number of license plates the department is already scanning, one obvious question remains: Will collecting all of this data about regular drivers really help fight crime?

According to figures Miami Beach Police provided, the department operates nine mobile plate readers, which are mounted on top of police cruisers. MBPD says data from those nine scanners led to 58 felony arrests and 112 misdemeanor arrests last year.

But by and large, the data was mostly used to issue traffic fines. The department says plate readers helped cops issue 283 parking citations, 2,403 criminal traffic tickets, and 7,404 noncriminal ones.

Nationally, pro-privacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have warned that tag readers could pose a threat to innocent people if mishandled: A California man in 2009 caught police using plate scanners to take photos of him and his daughters. In other departments, plate-reader data has been given to outside car-repossession companies or vice versa. Also, BuzzFeed News last year chronicled a Texas cop who became famous for using plate readers to issue small fines that bankrolled his Port Arthur Police Department.

It's clear the technology can help track down criminals, especially those driving stolen cars. But the ACLU has long warned that without strict rules to govern the data's usage, the plate readers can be mishandled. In the wrong hands, plate-reading data can be used to harass low-income communities or communities of color and can be used to stalk innocent civilians.

But MBPD provided New Times with its standard operating procedures for plate readers, and the rules finally shed light on the way the Beach's program works. Plate-reading data is kept for a single year, the documents say, and is scrubbed after 12 months unless police request the data be saved. Likewise, MBPD prohibits sharing the data with outside entities such as repo companies.

Large police databases, such as Florida's Driver and Vehicle Information Database (DAVID) of state license plates, are often abused by law enforcement officers. (Cops in West Palm in 2014 were caught using the DAVID system to stalk their exes, for example.) MBPD, to its credit, logs every time a cop accesses its plate-reader database.

But the new figures raise questions about the sheer scope of the surveillance programs run in Miami-Dade's multiple large police departments: Miami-Dade County Police also received $1.2 million last year to buy plate readers. Given the colossal amount of data just nine Miami Beach devices culled last year, local law enforcement heads ought to be fully transparent with the public if they plan to install more.