A new patrol vehicle that is able to scan hundreds of license plates at a time was deployed Monday in Valley Center, Sheriff's Department officials said.

The $78,673 Dodge Charger was purchased with a grant from East County gambling tribes, officials said. It's not the first vehicle equipped with plate-reading technology, but it will be the first to be used in the county's rural areas, said Lt. Michael McClain of the Valley Center sheriff's substation.

"It's fantastic to have this at our disposal," McClain said.

The vehicle has four cameras mounted on the roof that can scan about 300 license plates at a time. A computer inside the cab matches the license plates against Department of Motor Vehicles databases.

Officials said the computer automatically downloads data from the DMV four times a day. That information includes the license plate numbers of stolen vehicles and those belonging to wanted felons, Amber Alert information and missing-persons information.

McClain said the technology has many crime-fighting uses. For example,it can be used to help find sex offenders who might be hanging around near a school or playground, he said.

"I hope people understand the importance of having this technology," McClain said.

However, there are some privacy rights advocates that don't welcome the use of this technology, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy rights group based in San Francisco.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, has proposed a bill that would limit the use of license-plate-reading technology. His legislation, Senate Bill 1330, would require local law enforcement agencies to retain data captured by license plate scanners for only 60 days, except when the information is being used in felony investigations.

The bill is dead for the year because the Senate did not take it up, a spokeswoman for the senator said. However, Simitian may offer the bill again next year, she said.

Sheriff's officials underscored Monday that the technology does nothing that a deputy can't already do. The digital scanning technology does simply does it much faster than any deputy ever could.

"I would have to manually enter every single license plate number I wanted to run, but with this I'm able to do several hundred vehicles a minute, and it automatically tells me if something is there or not," said Sgt. Robert Niderost, who wrote the grant that paid for the vehicle.

Sheriff's officials said the vehicle will be used in North County casinos, such as Pala Casino and Valley View Casino, which have multiple-level parking lots. Deputies will be looking in particular for stolen vehicles.

The Valley Center substation serves the communities of Valley Center, Pauma Valley, Palomar Mountain and Rancho Guejito. It also serves several reservations, such as La Jolla, Pala, Rincon and San Pasqual.

The money for the vehicle came from the Barona Band of Mission Indians and the Sycuan Band of Mission Indians through the Indian Gaming Local Community Benefit Committee. The committee was formed to distribute grants aimed at reducing the off-reservation problems caused by tribal gaming, such as crime, traffic and gambling addiction.


VALLEY CENTER: License-plate-reading patrol car comes to local casinos