Miami Beach Cracks Down on Spring Break: No Music or Alcohol, Plus License-Plate Readers

Apparently, every large gathering in Miami Beach is now an excuse to attack citizens' privacy rights. In recent years, Miami Beach Police have cracked down hard on Memorial Day revelers, including with license-plate readers, which groups including the American Civil Liberties Union say pose a risk to the privacy of innocent people.

Now Miami Beach announced Monday that the city will impose a similar crackdown on spring breaker this year.

City Manager Jimmy Morales announced this week that the Beach will ban alcohol, coolers, speakers, inflatable devices, and tents on the beach March 3 through April 16. (That time frame also includes the annual Winter Music Conference, also known as Miami Music Week, which runs March 21 through 24.)

The city says Beach PD will use temporary license-plate readers during that time in order to catch alleged criminals with outstanding warrants who might be driving around town.

The surveillance-tech upgrade comes just as Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates is asking state legislators in Tallahassee to amend Florida law to let cops permanently install plate-readers on all state roads, especially Miami's causeways.

In May 2016, the City of Miami Beach Commission voted to let Beach cops beef up patrols during "High Impact Periods," with crowds of more than 5,000 people in a given time.

"For the upcoming spring, 2017 period, inclusive of spring break and Winter Music Conference schedules, the City Manager and Police Department have identified the dates of March 3 through April 16 as a High Impact Period on beach property, based on estimates derived from prior years to meet the following requirements to enact the above measures," Morales wrote this week.

Morales says more than 42,000 people went to the beach in the area stretching from South Pointe to 15th Street every weekend day from 2015 and 2016 in that March-through-April period. So, the city manager wrote, that large number would allow the city to install license-plate readers for a full month on every causeway leading into the island.

This past Wednesday, Chief Oates announced he wants to make the plate readers a permanent fixture on Miami's causeways, in a move the ACLU said could pose privacy threats unless "clear rules" are "put in place to keep authorities from tracking our movements on a massive scale and from retaining the data from these scanners for long periods of time."

In 2013, the ACLU released a comprehensive report on license-plate-reading technology, which said that "too little is known" about the federal government's use of plate-reading technology and that private companies have also installed readers to collect data on unwitting civilians. The ACLU has long warned that plate readers could pose a privacy threat if not governed by strict policies against their misuse.

The ACLU isn't the only group worried about the surveillance machines: In 2012, the FBI's own lawyers told that agency to stop buying plate readers in 2012 out of concerns for citizen privacy. While the Bureau has since resumed using the tech, documents the ACLU obtained show that the FBI's Office of General Counsel became worried five years ago that the plate readers could represent a surveillance overreach.

Civil-liberties advocates say the plate readers reveal far more about innocent people than cops let on. Plate data is typically stored for long periods of time and can be used to log the travel patterns of innocent people. Likewise, a California man revealed through a public-records request that readers were straight-up taking photos of him and his daughters entering and exiting their car in 2009.

Despite these issues, Oates and Miami Beach Police are adamant that the readers should become permanent fixtures on state roads and causeways.

New Times requested stats on how many times the readers have been used to arrest people, as well as for any policy directives in place governing the plate readers' use.

Officer Ernesto Rodriguez, an MBPD spokesperson, says the readers have been used in multiple arrests. Oates on Wednesday cited just one instance where the technology was used — the recent case of Jose Martinez, whom a plate reader caught after he fled cops and hit a bus — to justify flooding the city with permanent readers. (The technology was also cited in a July armed-robbery arrest, but the system did not lead to an arrest in that case.)

Last July, Miami-Dade Police received $1.2 million to buy plate readers.

The City of Miami Beach will echo other tactics from Memorial Day weekend, as well during this year's spring break. Morales announced Monday that certain neighborhood streets near the beach would be closed to public traffic and that properties near the beach would be subject to strict occupancy limits.

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.