D.C. Organization Threatens to Sue if Coral Gables Keeps License-Plate Readers

Automatic license-plate readers in Pensacola Beach, Florida.
Automatic license-plate readers in Pensacola Beach, Florida. Photo by Tony Webster / Flickr
If you've driven through Coral Gables anytime in the past three years, it's almost 100 percent certain police have a photo of your license plate and the ability to pinpoint your vehicle as it traveled within city limits. Despite having just 50,000 residents, the Gables is on track to capture 30 million license plates this year — more than 26 other police agencies in South Florida.

The city began installing license-plate readers in 2011 as part of a comprehensive crime-fighting plan, but critics say the cameras raise serious privacy concerns. This past Tuesday, the Washington, D.C.-based New Civil Liberties Alliance delivered a letter to city leaders threatening a lawsuit if Coral Gables does not remove the readers.

"Our demand is that they stop the system immediately," Caleb Kruckenberg, a lawyer for the nonprofit, tells New Times.

The organization's demand letter was filed on behalf of Gables resident Raul Mas Canosa, a former banker who calls the cameras "incredibly invasive." (Mas Canosa made news earlier this year by challenging the Gables' move to ban assault weapons after the Parkland massacre.)

"It's unreasonable," he says. "Please justify why you spent $3 million tracking the movements of not just Coral Gables residents but everyone going up and down U.S. 1 and then giving it to a private vendor and keeping it for three years."

The letter outlines several objections to the city's automatic plate readers, including an argument that the cameras violate drivers' Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. The organization also takes issue with the city's decision to retain license-plate photos for three years, which Kruckenberg says is excessive.

At a commission meeting Tuesday, city leaders — describing several anecdotes but never naming specific defendants or cases — argued that the cameras have helped track down violent criminals. Coral Gables' director of public safety, Frank Fernandez, defended the plate readers as a necessity for modern crime-fighting, as did Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak.

"We’re not looking to keep data and go back and mine it," Hudak told commissioners. "What we’re looking to do is make sure it's a safe passthrough city for everybody, including police officers."

Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli and City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos both indicated the city would keep the plate readers, forcing the New Civil Liberties Alliance to take the case to court. But Mas Canosa says he's ready to take on the City Beautiful.

"They hate to be in the public limelight unless it’s for the freaking umbrellas," he says of the city's pop-up art installation. "They love to talk about the umbrellas, but they don’t want to talk about this."
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb