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Petaluma buys high-tech license-plate readers

  • Petaluma Parking Enforcement Officer Charlene Lavezzoli marks parked cars with chalk in downtown Petaluma on Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Lavezzoli has to manually mark and write down the times for parked cars, but Petaluma Parking Enforcement should be receiving upgrades soon. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Petaluma motorists who dawdle while downtown may want to invest in some timers.

The city is preparing to purchase two GPS-aided, license-plate readers for its parking enforcement officers to more efficiently ticket vehicles parked longer than the two-hour limit.

The Auto-Vu license plate recognition and global positioning hardware package collects images and data on when, where and for how long a vehicle has been in a location.

Police say they will use the technology only to catch parking scofflaws, but the collection and storage of such detailed information about motorists' comings and goings raises privacy questions and concerns about potential misuse of the data.

Lt. Tim Lyons said the sole purpose of the technology is to make the jobs of the three parking officers safer and more efficient and nab drivers hogging parking spaces.

"The only time we'll even view it is if someone contests a ticket," he said. "We don't look at it or monitor the information."

Petaluma won't share the data or contribute to growing public and private license-plate databases law enforcement agencies throughout California are helping compile.

Some agencies install the technology on patrol cars, then collect readings and feed them into intelligence centers operated by local, state and federal law enforcement, according to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Given the recent disclosure of secret information gathering operations by the National Security Agency, privacy advocates have raised concerns about data collection that can track innocent people's movements.

Some agencies say the technology helps find wanted suspects, stolen cars, kidnapping victims and even homicide suspects or victims.

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