Connecticut cracking down on out of state car registrations

Bob Dylan's 115th Dream

Yeah, not so much. While Connecticut has a very high media income, there are a lot of poor people. And if they’re registering in another state, they are trying to comply as best they can:

City officials in Waterbury, Conn. recently announced an aggressive crackdown on residents who register their cars out of state to avoid Connecticut’s high vehicles taxes. In a state where municipal taxes are collected annually on all motor vehicles, some residents who work or have family in neighboring states have opted to register their cars out of state. In attempt to squeeze every last penny for the state’s dwindling coffers, the city’s police department, in conjunction with the tax authority, has contracted with a private firm to photograph and track parked vehicles every night.

The city’s move is drawing criticism from some who say the plan is a violation of their civil rights. For car owners who live in Waterbury – regardless of where the automobile is registered – the city’s new plan could be a privacy nightmare. Once tracking data is compiled and suspect vehicles are identified, the police will assign light-duty officers to investigate and issue citations. Penalties can include back taxes and fines up to $1,000.

Municipal Tax Services, a central Connecticut-based company, will begin assisting the city by deploying vehicles equipped with high-speed cameras. As the company’s private patrol cars cruise the city each night, they will be taking photos of every vehicle parked on city’s streets – including the license plates. The company will then build a database and profile the parking patterns of all vehicles to determine which cars are suspected of using out-of-state registrations to dodge taxes.

While residents in Washington, D.C. may not be trying to avoid taxes, there is a similar scenario playing out on this city’s streets. Pursuant the District’s Registration of Out-of-State Automobiles – or ROSA – regulation, the Department of Public Works does monitor the streets for vehicles that do not comply with District registration requirements.

Washington’s program is far less intrusive than the one currently being implemented in Connecticut. According to the Washington, D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, any vehicle parked or operated in the District for 30 consecutive days must be registered and display a valid DMV inspection sticker and tags. During normal work rounds, DPW personnel make note of any vehicle not in compliance twice in a 30-day period.

Once an offending vehicle is identified, DPW may issue a warning to notify the owner of compliance violations. Owners then have the option of requesting a ROSA exemption as a recurring visitor to the District. ROSA exemptions may be obtained in person, by mail, or online at the DMV website and apply only to the ROSA enforcement and no other parking provisions.

In Connecticut, the city of Waterbury will be actively collecting license plates and storing them by the location where they were photographed.

Peter Billings commented, “While there is an element of Big Brother to the program, vehicle owners who rely on street-side parking may have little recourse when it comes to objections to the city’s intrusive activity.”

An “element” of Big Brother? Ya think?

The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed numerous iterations of Fourth Amendment claims in the criminal context, but the situation in Waterbury, Conn. carries no criminal aspect. It is a civil matter concerning the tax authority – and while a penalty may be imposed for violating the vehicle registration rules, it is not one imposed by a criminal court.

Though residents may face obstacles in raising a Fourth Amendment challenge, the Supreme Court has issued some case law that may hold promise. In 2012 the Court held that installing a GPS on a car for a month was a Fourth Amendment violation because, while anyone could watch where the vehicle travelled, the accumulation of the observations and data over time was excessively intrusive.

Additionally, there are two fundamental rights in the Connecticut surveillance issue that might tentatively be addressed in the context of the First Amendment. They include the right to privacy, and the closely related right of anonymity – a form of privacy that comes with being in public places, but correlates to freedom from identification. Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested in a 2012 concurring opinion that a new definition of privacy may be warranted to address the growing encroachment of technology and “whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated.”

Her opinion echoes an analogy used by Justice William Rehnquist forty years ago. In 1974, Rehnquist wrote in the Kansas Law Review about the prospect of local police writing down the license plates of everyone who frequented a particular bar. He wrote that the resulting invasion of privacy concerns would cause a “justified uneasiness.”

There is growing uneasiness in Connecticut and other jurisdictions where mass data collection of citizens’ movement and actions are underway. In Texas, where there is no law regulating the use of electronic surveillance and police sharing with private companies, Fort Worth’s Digital Recognition Network maintains a system that adds 100 million license plate photos to its database every month.

Privacy advocates worry that the rampant and unregulated collection of such large amounts of data may lead to abuses. Such concerns have prompted two states to ban private companies from amassing license plate data – Arkansas and Utah. Utah has since amended its law after Digital Recognition sued for – ironically – a First Amendment violation.

Until the Supreme Court, as Justice Sotomayor intimated, redefines privacy, the mass collection of private data – including license plates – will likely continue at exponential rates. In the meantime, District residents have little to worry about with available ROSA exceptions. And in Connecticut, maybe Waterbury residents should invest in car covers – to keep the city’s grime off.

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