EL PASO, Texas -

DEA cameras spotted in Texas Feds push to install license plate readers on state highways By Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera

Driving east on Interstate 10 near Sierra Blanca you might see something ? and something might see you ? that wasn?t there a year ago: cameras.

The Drug Enforcement Agency has been using the cameras as license plate readers in other states, like New Mexico, to assist in its drug trafficking and money laundering investigations.

But because of doubts about the Texas Department of Transportation?s authority to allow their installation on state roads, none of the cameras had been seen in this state.

That is, until recently. During the last year, the DEA has placed temporary license plate readers in three locations close the border, including Sierra Blanca, about 88 miles east of El Paso.

The DEA would not disclose the exact location of the other two, but online accounts have allegedly spotted other cameras near the Sarita border inspection station, on Highway 77 between Brownsville and Corpus Christi.

Even though TxDOT and state officials haven?t cleared the permanent installation of license plate readers along state roads, state representative and chair of the House Transportation Committee Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, says the readers have been placed at Border Patrol stations ? areas administered by the federal government where the DEA doesn?t need the state?s authorization to install them.

However, the current setup is hardly ideal for state and federal authorities. Pickett says they?d prefer to have more devices spread across state roads, especially in high-traffic areas.

Travis Kuykendall, director of the West Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area?s federal office in El Paso, says the current readers are temporary installations that can be easily toppled by strong winds.

The perfect setup, Kuykendall says, would be to have permanent, well-secured fixtures in strategic locations like beneath bridges or overhangs.

DEA spokesman Rusty Payne says license plate readers are designed to play a key role in his agency?s investigative efforts. The cameras capture license plate numbers and cross-reference them with local, state and federal law enforcement lookout queries.

Kuykendall says cameras would be useful to respond more quickly to Amber Alerts or to detect vehicles stolen in the United States and driven to the other side of the border for use in drug smuggling. License plate readers might help authorities catch the thieves before they make it across the border, he says.

In plain sight But not everybody?s a fan. Jose Medina, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, says his group worries about the devices? potential to collect and store information on non-suspects ? like a person?s driving patterns and destinations ? and would like authorities to make public the privacy guidelines they follow when using these tools.

?Whenever law enforcement comes up with a new crime fighting tool, there?s always the potential that it will be misused and that it could be used in inappropriate manners,? Medina says.

Kuykendall says license plates are publicly displayed for everyone to see, which cancels any claims to privacy.

?Anybody can read a license plate so there?s no expectation or violation of privacy when someone reads it. All we?re doing is aiding law enforcement by making a faster review of the public record,? he says.

The DEA started its license plate reader pilot program in December 2007 and now uses the devices in every state along the border. In New Mexico, for instance, the agency has been operating cameras for over a year and a half in 10 locations along interstates 10 and 25 and U.S. 54.

?We like the results,? Payne says. ?We want to grow, we want more. It?s an effective tool that lets us collect information.?

The cameras are not necessarily new to Texas. The U.S. Custom and Border Protection agency has used license plate readers for years to scan vehicles entering the country through the international land ports of entry.

But TxDOT has been hesitant to authorize the installations of the cameras since the agency is uncertain if the devices could interfere in any way with the operation or maintenance of their roadways, of if they could present a safety hazard to motorists or highway workers.

?That is a big concern and that is the question we have to answer any time a public entity asks to use the right of way,? says TxDOT spokeswoman Karen Amacker. ?If members of the state legislature would like to answer these questions in law and provide greater clarity to who may use the right way under what circumstances and for what purposes, we would certainly apply those laws as necessary to those requests.?

In the legislature In fact, the use of license plate readers has strong support among some high-placed state legislators, including Rep. Pickett and Sen. Tommy Williams, chair of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

Both legislators organized hearings this year for authorities ? including the DEA and the Texas Department of Public Safety ? to give testimony on the benefits of the devices.

How soon drivers might encounter license plate readers sprinkled across Texas highways remains to be seen. Payne says there is no real time table when that might happen. Pickett says the testimony from law enforcers will be taken into consideration in the legislative session that begins next month.

Kuykendall says that the hold up is a policy issue and doesn?t need to wait for legislators to enact express authorization. He expects the readers will be cleared for permanent installation anywhere from a few months to a year.