License plate readers helped Virginia police catch the WDBJ shooter

Virginia police were able to track down the disgruntled gunman responsible for shooting two television news station employees live on-air Wednesday using a controversial piece of technology known as a license plate reader.

Virginia State Trooper Pamela Neff was on eastbound 66 when Vester Lee Flanagan's car passed her cruiser. Flanagan, who used the name Bryce Williams on-air, had just shot and killed WDBJ reporter Allison Parker and photographer Adam Ward. Scanners on Neff's cruisers automatically picked up Flanagan's license plate and ran the number through her on-board computer. It then alerted her that the car was owned by a suspect in a violent crime, Fox News reports.

"Technology picked it up," explained Sgt. Rick Garletts of the Virginia State Police, during a press conference Wednesday. "Once a license plate is entered into the system, that reader will be able to identify that license plate when it passes."

​Neff radioed in Flanagan's location and began to chase him down. Flanagan ignored police attempts to pull him over. He eventually ran his car off the road and crashed. Police found Flanagan in his car with a fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was pronounced dead two hours after his car was first picked up by the license plate reader.

Virginians have a contentious relationship with license plate readers in cop cars. While they are becoming ubiquitous in law enforcement agencies across the country, motorists have some very real concerns about this wholesale surveillance of citizens. Police departments can hold on to records of motorists' whereabout indefinitely, and there are often no clear guidelines on who can use the information gathered by the readers and when. In May, a Virginia motorist filed a lawsuit asking a circuit court to prohibit the Fairfax County Police Department from retaining records beyond those used for active investigations. The lawsuit could set a standard for citizen data storage in police departments across the country.

Drivers are concerned that, over time, cumulative records can reveal sensitive personal information, such as a person's daily whereabouts, which doctors they visit or where they attend political rallies. And it is not just local police who use the readers with little to no oversight. An email obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and released earlier this year showed the DEA collaborated with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on a plan to collect data on vehicles at a Phoenix-area gun show in 2009.

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