By CRISTINA JANNEY
The Ellis County Commission approved the purchase of a license plate reader for the sheriff's department's K-9 unit vehicle at its meeting on Tuesday.
The camera system scans license plates and runs them through the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Kansas Highway Patrol systems.
"It's a tool just like a handgun," Ellis County Sheriff Scott Braun said. "It enhances his ability. It is similar to when we purchased the laser for our guns and lights. It lets us do our job better."
He said the tool could be especially helpful in drug enforcement as well as Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts. Amber Alerts are issued when children go missing and Silver Alerts are used to help search for vulnerable missing older adults.
"As we all know, fentanyl drugs running up and down the road are a problem," Braun said. "If we can catch them before they hit our community ... This will help enhance that ability."
The sheriff's office regularly checks hotels for possible criminal activity. This will allow the patrol officer to drive through the parking lots and quickly check tags, Braun said.
Other uses that Braun detailed in his report to the county commission included locating stolen vehicles, enforcement of highway and traffic safety, homeland security, perimeter security, speed enforcement, probable cause generation in drug investigations, rental contract violations, suspect surveillance, traffic pattern analysis, convoy analysis and other analysis used in criminal investigations.
The cost of the system is $22,000. $10,000 will come from the sheriff's department capital improvement fund and $12,000 from the opioid fund.
The system is made up of three cameras mounted on the patrol vehicle, which are able to scan license plates when vehicles are stationary and at highway speeds, as well as during the day or at night. The results are sent to an in-car mobile laptop.
If the license plate is found in a law enforcement database, an alert is sent to the officer in the patrol vehicle and dispatch.
The system is able to read thousands of plates per hour.
Kansas City, Wichita and the Kansas Highway Patrol are already using the technology. Each of these law enforcement agencies receives hits from the scanners on a daily basis, Braun said.
Commissioner Nathan Leiker asked if the cameras would raise any issues with motorists' constitutional rights. He referenced an ongoing case involving the Kansas Highway Patrol and how troopers stop and question motorists.
The court ruled the KHP had violated constitutional rights with an investigation method dubbed the "trooper two-step." That case is on appeal.
Braun said the Ellis County Sheriff's office employs the technique. However, he said the camera system could help avoid the potential conflict by helping establish reasonable suspicion of a potential crime through use of the databases.
He said the use of the databases may even help the deputies reach the level of probable cause.
Leiker also asked if there could be any issues for innocent drivers.
"Regardless of the technology, we still have to be cops," Braun said. "We still have to investigate.
"If a car was stopped inadvertently because something was entered wrong into the system, I would like to think the deputy would quickly deduct that and kick them on down the road and be honest with them that the vehicle was showing that you were wanted or something to the effect of that."
"With technology, there are errors sometimes. We deal with those on a daily process.
"[The license reader] is probably less likely to have errors than the human factor," Braun said. "We just have the human factor on the back side that has to enter this information. We hope that is right. We will do our cop duties."
It will be about two months before the system can be installed.