.Marin sheriff installing license plate readers amid concern of eroding civil liberties

The Marin County Sheriff’s Office will soon install new surveillance cameras throughout unincorporated Marin County to keep a record of the coming and going of vehicles. 

Supporters believe these automated license plate recognition (ALPR) cameras will help reduce or deter crime, with opponents citing concerns about the erosion of civil liberties.

Last week, the Marin County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Sheriff Jamie Scardina’s proposal for an ALPR system with 31 cameras in nine locations. Scardina received the green light to spend $198,650 for a two-year contract with Flock Group Inc., a privately held Atlanta company that will lease the cameras to the county, as well as install and maintain them. The funds will come from the sheriff’s existing budget.

The ALPR cameras capture still images of the rear of vehicles, including the license plates. The system runs the license plates against “hot lists” from law enforcement databases, which contain vehicles associated with active investigations, such as stolen vehicles and those involved in alerts for missing children. If a vehicle on a hot list is detected, the sheriff’s dispatch center will be notified in real time.

The sheriff provided the supervisors with success stories of other agencies using Flock Group cameras. In Georgia, a Flock camera identified a suspect vehicle involved in the kidnapping of a one year old, and in less than six hours, the baby and mother were reunited. In San Bruno, police created a hot list for a suspect vehicle in the smash and grab robbery of a jewelry store. When the vehicle entered the area again, officers located it within seconds of the alert, potentially preventing another robbery.

These cases are gripping, but Marin isn’t exactly a hotbed of crime. The sheriff’s own website shows that most categories of crime have decreased over the last two years in the county. In 2022, property crime in unincorporated Marin dropped to its lowest level since 1985, according to FBI data.

A local activist who has kept his eye on Marin law enforcement for years, Frank Shinneman, says the low incidence of crime in the county doesn’t appear to justify increased surveillance. Shinneman suggests that each of the five county supervisors participate in a 60-day ALPR tracking demonstration of their own personal vehicles.

“It will show their travel in great detail and demonstrate how much of their lives are revealed to anyone who has access to the system,” Shinneman said.

For years, civil rights groups have been sounding the alarm about law enforcement’s use of camera systems with tracking ability. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is especially concerned about ALPRs supplied by the Flock Group, claiming the company is building a nationwide mass-surveillance system through its cameras in 3,000 communities across the country. 

Drivers will soon notice the sheriff’s Flock cameras in Marin City, Strawberry, Tam Valley, Greenbrae, Oak Manor, Santa Venetia, Peacock Gap, Marinwood and Lucas Valley, as well as at Atherton Avenue near Binford Road and Highway 37 in Novato and the east and west ends of Indian Valley Road in Novato. The sheriff’s office selected locations based on crime “heat maps” for retail and vehicle theft, with the targeted areas having only one or two ways in and out.

Several Marin cities and towns already use Flock cameras. Police departments in Sausalito, Belvedere, Tiburon and Novato have contracts with the company. San Rafael recently approved the installation of 19 ALPRs from Flock.

Marin neighborhood groups and homeowner associations also use Flock cameras, including Wolfback Ridge in Sausalito, Paradise Cay in Tiburon, Los Ranchitos in San Rafael, Oceana Marin in Dillon Beach and Dillon Beach Association. Some of these private groups allow law enforcement to monitor and access the camera data.

The Marin County Sheriff’s Office is quick to point out safeguards to protect privacy, including that it owns the collected data, and Flock won’t have access. Yet, the sheriff will share the information with law enforcement agencies around the state, which is perfectly legal.

While the sheriff stated the data will be destroyed after 30 days, critics say that’s a relatively long retention period. In New Hampshire, if a plate doesn’t get a hit, the state requires law enforcement to purge the data within three minutes.

Flock’s camera network reminds many of George Orwell’s “Big Brother” concept in 1984. It’s not unfounded. Last year, then-sheriff Robert Doyle settled a lawsuit claiming his office illegally shared the license plate data and location information of Marin motorists with hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Still, other Marinites welcome the surveillance technology. Some in Marin City, a historically Black community that has long objected to over-policing by the county, favor ALPR cameras.

In February, the Phoenix Project, a Marin City organization mentoring at-risk young males and adults, surveyed 105 people in the community about installing ALPR cameras in the area. Almost 63% of respondents said it was an idea that should be considered. Others commented that the cameras were an invasion of privacy.

Felecia Gaston, director of the Phoenix Project, understands both sides. But she wants the cameras.

“As a Black woman, Marin City resident and the founder of the Phoenix Project of Marin, I am very conscious and aware of the issues around the use of cameras by law enforcement, especially when it comes to Black people and Black men, so I can see how this can seem invasive,” Gaston said. “However, this issue is dealing with safety in our community, and the use of license plate readers can be useful to work on solutions when an incident happens.”

Although criminal incidents occur less frequently in Marin County than in surrounding areas, Sgt. Adam Schermerhorn of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office points out that crime does exist here.

“What we’re trying to do is solve the crime that just occurred,” Schermerhorn said. “These cameras are a fantastic tool to help us identify who may have been in the area at a particular time. We can go and search those records to see which vehicles were there. It’s a great way for us to start generating leads, where we otherwise would have absolutely no information.”

As for the Flock cameras being a slippery slope that tramples civil rights, Schermerhorn isn’t worried. The cameras don’t collect identifying information, such as photos of drivers or passengers, and there’s no facial recognition component, according to Schermerhorn.

Nonetheless, if innocent drivers pass an ALPR camera around the same time as a vehicle making a getaway from a crime, identifying information for the owners of all those vehicles will be accessed by law enforcement.

Marin County Supervisor Eric Lucan, a former member of the Novato City Council, said that when the Novato Police Department acquired ALPR cameras, they recovered quite a few stolen vehicles. The situation then plateaued, perhaps indicating that word got out to car thieves not to come to Novato, according to Lucan. He believes that since no new budget was allocated for the ALPR system, the county should try it.

The ACLU remains wary, with Flock Group’s rapid growth causing particular concern. In an article published earlier this year, Chad Marlow and Jay Stanley, two senior ACLU staffers, urged communities to oppose Flock and other mass surveillance systems.

Although that ship has sailed in Marin, the board of supervisors directed Scardina to come back in a year to review the implementation of the Flock cameras.

“In our country, the government should not be tracking us unless it has individualized suspicion that we’re engaged in wrongdoing,” Marlow and Stanley wrote. 

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

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