FLAGLER COUNTY, Fla. – When Sgt. Michael Lagana, of the Flagler County Sheriff's Office, was put in charge of researching and recommending an electronic license plate-reading system, he settled on Vigilant because of how many other law enforcement agencies already use it.
"We went up to St. John's County, saw how theirs worked, I want to say their property crimes are down 50%," Lagana said.
Lagana also discovered other counties around Florida using the same system share alerts and their databases.
"We had a missing person from our county go northbound into St. John's County," Lagana said. "Within 20 minutes of the report, we located the Alzheimer's patient in St. John's County. The cameras up there picked it up and notified our system."
Lagana recommended the license plate reader system to the Flagler County Sheriff's Office, and in January, Sheriff Rick Staly spent $220,000 on what he calls a "minimal" but highly effective system from Vigilant.
"The most high-profile arrest we made with an LPR hit is a guy that America's Most Wanted profiled in 1996 after he stabbed his wife 33 times," Staly said. "He did a very violent robbery in Virginia, stole a car, had that car for five days. For whatever reason, he got off I-95 on one of our main roads in Flagler County. A LPR ran his license plate, came back stolen out of Virginia. Our deputies caught him within minutes."
Infra-red and flash-enabled cameras mounted throughout Flagler County take a snapshot of a license plate as a car passes by the reader. The image is then transcribed by computers and immediately cross-referenced with a database of license plates containing fugitives, stolen cars, drivers with suspended licenses and missing persons.
Databases from different law enforcement agencies using the same system are also searched.
An analyst always verifies the tag to make sure it's a match before alerting deputies on the road.
Staly said the LPRs are effective at catching wanted criminals and deterring them.
"What we will never know is why he got off I-95 in Palm Coast, was he going to do something? We'll never know that," Staly said. "Fortunately, we're able to prevent whatever he was planning to do because of this technology."
Deputies move the trailer-mounted cameras regularly for events.
"Certain things like where sex offenders might come, we can put it out, they let us know if they go by an alert," Lagana said. "Within the first month, we had seven stolen cars recovered. We had two missing people recovered."
Staly credits the LPRs with helping bring Flagler County's crime rate to a 14-year low.
"We probably get three to four hits a day," Staly said.
Staly said there is no expectation of privacy on a public roadway.
"If you don't want to get arrested in Flagler County, don't commit a crime," Staly said.
The license plate data is stored for three years in a central server in Miami, not in Flagler County.
Data is kept so deputies can search the system for a tag that may have passed by a reader after a crime was committed.
Flagler County sheriff's deputies recovered 14 stolen cars using LPRs from January to April and arrested the drivers.