AUGUSTA — The House gave initial approval Wednesday to a bill to restrict the use of license-plate surveillance cameras by police.

The bill was introduced this year after the South Portland Police Department bought a camera system that captures images of license plates and stores the information for 30 days. The department told legislators that the system helps it track stolen vehicles and criminals who are listed in police databases.

Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, sponsored a measure that originally sought to ban the cameras. But, after much debate, the bill was amended to restrict their use.

The amended bill, which passed the House and Senate on initial votes, says that information can be stored for no longer than 21 days, and that police must have a specific reason for using the systems, including “a concern for safety, wrongdoing or a criminal investigation.”

The bill also makes it clear that information gathered by the cameras is confidential.

During brief debate in the House, Rep. Rob Eaton, D-Sullivan, said he initially had concerns about whether the systems violate the rights of people who aren’t suspected of crimes.

“I find surveillance of innocent citizens unacceptable in my society,” he said.

However, he voted for the measure because restrictions would be put in place to protect the data, he said.

Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, said he trusts police to be responsible when using the equipment.

“This technology helps enhance their ability to capture folks who are driving stolen vehicles,” he said. “In my opinion, it wasn’t a civil liberties issue. I would be the one to stand in opposition if I thought it was taking away anyone’s civil liberties.”

The bill faces more House and Senate votes before it goes to Gov. John Baldacci.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@centralmaine.com