Greg M. Schwartz
The controversial Texas Department of Transportation Sunset Bill, HB 300, has been under extensive scrutiny and change as legislators have tacked on a slew of amendments that have brought the bloated bill to nearly 250 single-spaced pages.
There's already been concern about private toll road contracts having been snuck into the bill that non-profit Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) says will sell out Texas roadways to private corporations.
Now the ACLU of Texas is raising a red flag over the bill's Article 33, which would allow the federal government and Texas Department of Public Safety to install "license plate readers" on any Texas highway. The ACLU warns that Texans can expect a record of their movements to be created, potentially monitored, and stored by the federal government. The ACLU's primary concern is that the readers are a technology with a tendency to make errors.
“From what I understand, this technology could misread the platesâ?¦ and mistake somebody for a wanted felon,” says ACLU of Texas Media Coordinator Jose Medina.
The ACLU's action alert says the feature that permits the reader to identify characters on a license plate makes mistakes that can result in running the wrong plate number.
“A felony traffic stop based on a misidentification could lead to police guns pointed at you and your family,” reads the alert, which asks Texans to contact their state representatives and tell them to have Article 33 stricken from HB 300.
Sen. Tommy Williams (R-Woodlands) is the author of Article 33, which was added as an amendment in the Senate Committee Hearing.
“It's a law enforcement tool that is severely needed to catch drug runners and gun runners,” says Williams' legislative aide Jason Smith. He argues that officers can already look up license plates from the side of the road, and that this technology would just make it easier for police to access such information.
The ACLU counters that “the cameras cannot distinguish between your SUV and a drug smuggler's SUV.”
TURF spokeswoman Terri Hall says her group is adamantly opposed to Article 33 and also believes that HB 300 should be killed altogether. She's also suspicious of the manner in which Article 33 was added.
“There's too much in this bill for anyone to meaningfully scrutinize it in this session,” said Hall. “They've hidden Article 33 from everyone, it wasn't in any amendments presented to the public. So they're obviously sneaking in stuffâ?¦ It is an absolute affront to our freedoms and right to privacy.”
Hall says HB 300 has “far too much baggage to negotiate down to anything acceptable to taxpayers” and that TURF hopes for a safety net bill that would push the TxDOT Bill to the next legislative session in 2011, when TURF hopes there will be a new governor.
“This is an industry bill,” said Hall of the companies that make red light cameras, toll collection cameras and the license plate readers. “They just want a government contract to sell their goodsâ?¦ and never mind it brings us into a surveillance society.”
The stewardship of HB 300 looks to be in the hands of Rep. Carl Isett (R-Lubbock) the bill sponsor, and Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), the House Transportation Committee chairman. An aide from Isett's office said that the House and Senate versions of the bill will go into a conference committee of five Democrats and five Republicans this week, where it will be decided which parts of the bill stay and which go before it's voted on.
“He is very much against automated traffic cameras,” said the aide of Isett's stance, implying that he wouldn't let Article 33 stay.
But Williams' aide Jason Smith argued that the license plate readers “are not traffic cameras, they are not traffic enforcement.” Some might view that characterization as splitting hairs, but if Isett buys it, then Article 33 is likely to stay in the bill.
Texans who are concerned about Article 33's Orwellian implications can use a form set up by the ACLU to ask their representatives to call for it to be taken out of the bill.