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DHS taps database of license plate snapshots to hunt fugitives

Cameron Cross/

More than 685 million continually updated images of license plates gathered in a commercial database soon will be available to federal authorities for pinpointing the hideouts of escaped illegal immigrants, according to a contract slated to be finalized Tuesday.

The National Vehicle Location Service program, commonly used in law enforcement, is intended to augment manual field surveillance of fugitives, Homeland Security Department officials said. Fugitive aliens are non-U.S. citizens who have not complied with deportation orders.

The geo-tracking data largely will come from commercial camera operators who capture license plate information on behalf of lenders trying to recover collateral from borrowers, according to the vendor, Vigilant Video. Also, law enforcement agencies themselves increasingly are deploying license plate readers to share photographs through the service.

Under the terms of the deal, authorities at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Dallas field office can enter a runaway’s plate numbers and receive an alert when the database finds a matching location record, a July 5 contract justification notice stated. The system “detects and records license plate numbers on moving cars, and compares them in real time to ‘hot list’ data to offer alarms where and when needed,” government documents stated.

Based on ICE’s Google searches and inquiries to the General Services Administration, Vigilant Video is the only firm currently providing this type of system, officials said. The $24,592 five-year deal is scheduled to be awarded on July 10. “This database will save [ICE] many productive man hours by identifying the whereabouts of vehicles registered within the scope of the fugitive investigation,” the document stated. “The current method utilizes traditional surveillance methods.”

A free trial of the service yielded 100 arrests within six months, including some fugitives associated with cold cases, officials said.

The public notice did not include a privacy policy or terms of use. Vigilant Video’s website states that any law enforcement department with a valid agency code can use the service. Police usage is self-regulated, according to the company. Officers log on to the system through virtual private networks or secure communications protocols for HTTPS sites.

ICE is behind schedule in closing runaway cases, according to agency records. In 2007, ICE expected to eliminate a backlog of about 600,000 absconders before the end of fiscal 2009, the agency reported to the DHS inspector general. By November 2011, ICE officials counted 480,000 fugitive cases remaining. That number represented a decrease of more than 26,500 since the beginning of the fiscal year, officials noted at the time.

ICE’s National Fugitive Operations Program, which partners with local law enforcement to remove escapees, has grown from eight to 104 field teams since it was launched roughly a decade ago.

(Image via Cameron Cross/

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