Pittsburgh Parking Authority keeps eye on drivers

By Abbey Reighard / Staff Writer

Andrew Colaizzi lives in Mount Lebanon and often rides the bus to campus. But on days he drives, he said he finds it difficult to find a parking space because many of the spaces are already taken. 

Colaizzi, a junior accounting major, said he doesn’t think information about his vehicle movements or where he parks his car should be recorded and then accessible to the public. 

But because of cameras planted throughout the city, snapshots of his vehicle could become public information.  

Pittsburgh police auto theft squad and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority started using License Plate-Recognition cameras, or LPR cameras, in 2006. These cameras record the images of plate numbers on vehicles in the Pittsburgh area. The auto theft squad currently uses three LPR cameras, and the Parking Authority uses two LPR cameras.  

At the Pittsburgh Parking Authority monthly board meeting, the board members agreed to purchase three new Plate-Recognition cameras, in addition to the two cameras the Authority already have in use. According to records of the board meeting listed on the Pittsburgh Parking Authority website, the board agreed upon the purchase of storage server for the Plate-Recognition cameras. The servers will increase the storing-capacity of images taken from the cameras. The storage unit and three cameras will cost the city around $25,000. 

The Parking Authority’s Parking Boot and Tow program also uses the plate-recognition cameras, which are installed on the exterior of booting operation vehicles to locate scofflaws, or owners of vehicles who hold five or more outstanding parking tickets. 

According to Patricia Konesky, executive assistant of the Parking Authority, there are currently about 4,000 uploaded license plate numbers belonging to scofflaws that are at risk of being booted and towed. Konesky said the unpaid parking tickets from these scofflaws add to more than $2 million.

City officials keep the images from the cameras on file for 30 days.Once the driver does not pay the fifth ticket after the 30-day mark, the vehicle license-plate number is uploaded by the Parking Authority into the plate-recognition system so that cameras around the city can locate the scofflaw and impound the vehicle.

Colaizzi, who is also a member of Pitt Commuter Mentors, a group that assists commuter students in adjusting to their first year at college, said that the plate-recognition cameras are worrisome. 

“I can understand why police need to keep some of this information on file, but random strangers should not be allowed to view [that information],” Colaizzi said.

Colaizzi said the documents could easily end up in the “wrong hands” and that the information provided by the images of the license plates and the vehicle locations could potentially be abused. 

He added that the public images could allow strangers to follow or stalk individuals through the information obtained from the cameras concerning individuals’ vehicle locations and driving habits.

“The thing that I find most worrying is that people can go to the place where this information is stored and retrieve it pretty easily,” Colaizzi said.

David Onorato, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, said the information recorded by the plate-recognition cameras is not shared on a regular basis. 

“The authority does not share [plate-recognition] information unless required by State of Pennsylvania Right-to-Know stature,” Onorato said. 

Elena Baylis, a law professor at Pitt, said the plate-recognition cameras are not a violation of constitutional rights to privacy because the cameras record the images of vehicle plates within a public setting. She added that the city government can legally use the public information.

“If you choose to do something in the street, or in another public area, you are voluntarily acting where anyone can see you,” Baylis said. “And so you have relinquished any reasonable expectation that your activities will remain private.”

Baylis also said that if residents are upset with the use of the records from the cameras, they can pressure officials to establish policies that prevent authorities from keeping the photos or the public from viewing the images.

According to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority website, under the Right-to-Know Law, residents can write a request to obtain Parking Authority records.

The request must be in accordance with the guidelines of the law, and the letter must indicate which record the resident wants to access. Residents must also clearly indicate on the written document whether the inquiry is a Right-to-Know Law request.

Konesky said that Parking Authority reviews and either approves or rejects each Right-to-Know request within five days of receiving it. The Parking Authority bases decisions on the specific circumstances of the requested information and the individual’s reason for requesting the information.

If the Pittsburgh Parking Authority agrees to the written request, staff will mail a photocopy of the requested document to the resident’s home.

According to the Parking Authority website, the Parking Authority Board also voted in September to monitor Residential Permit Parking Program passes with the plate-recognition system. The authority can use the cameras to locate parked cars that do not have a valid parking pass for the location in which they are parked.

Onorato added that the system enables the Parking Authority to enforce the 33 residential parking districts in Pittsburgh in “a more timely and efficient manner.”According to Sergeant Richard Begenwald, auto theft supervisor for the Pittsburgh police, police can also use the plate-recognition system to track wanted or missing persons, stolen vehicles, stolen, expired or suspended license plates and suspects from terrorist watch lists.

Once the cameras indicate a hit for a stolen vehicle, or any other criminal activity involving the vehicle, law enforcement officials confirm the theft or crime and then decide how to pursue the suspect.

Within the past seven years, Pittsburgh police recovered 46 stolen vehicles, which were valued at more than $450,000, according to Begenwald. He said there more cameras are installed by homeland security in various locations around the city. That information, however, is classified and Bengenwald does not know for sure of other cameras or their locations in the city.

Mike Ball, a junior rehabilitation science major, commutes to campus on a daily basis from his home in West Mifflin. He said he understands the use of the cameras to locate lawbreakers and vehicles with outstanding tickets, but he doesn’t think information concerning his vehicle should be accessible to the public.

Ball also said he thinks authorities should notify individuals whose license plate numbers are kept on file in the system, so vehicle owners can access the information about their vehicle locations and driving habits.

“I don’t like the fact that anyone can access that information,” Ball said. “The records should be treated like medical records and should only be available to police officers.”