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ATTORNEY GENERAL J.B. VAN HOLLEN TESTIFIES IN SUPPORT OF SIGNIFICANT PUBLIC SAFETY LEGISLATION

 

Bill Would Enable Law Enforcement Officers To Have Real-Time Access To Drivers' License Photos

 

MADISON - Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen testified this morning in support of legislation that would allow police officers to have, solely for law enforcement purposes, real-time electronic access to photographic records stored by the Department of Transportation (DOT). If enacted, the bill (AB-639), authored by State Representative Kitty Rhoades, would essentially marry new technology, which allows the state's centralized law enforcement electronic communications network (the TIME System) to transmit images, with existing public policy, which through law permits law enforcement to obtain DOT photographs but only by a written request.

 

"The proposed change in the law is not so much what law enforcement can obtain and for what purposes," explained Van Hollen, "but how quickly law enforcement can obtain the information. Allowing officers to have access to photos in an instant, on-the-scene, makes officers safer and makes the public safer."

 

Van Hollen's written testimony is reproduced below:

 

WRITTEN TESTIMONY OF ATTORNEY GENERAL J.B. VAN HOLLEN IN SUPPORT OF 2007 ASSEMBLY BILL 639

Assembly Transportation Committee

Thursday, January 17, 2008

 

Representative Petrowski, members of the Assembly Transportation Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of what I believe is very important public safety legislation.

 

The TIME system[1] is a computer-based law enforcement communications control center, managed by the Department of Justice. It is the critical information network relied on by law enforcement officers for timely, accurate, on-the-scene information.

 

The TIME system network has been operational for over 35 years. During most of that time, Wisconsin motor vehicle operator licenses have included photographs. And for the past 10 years, law enforcement has had the ability to make a written request to DOT for drivers' license photographs. But as the technical capability to transmit images in real time over the TIME system has become a reality in recent years, the law--at least as it relates to drivers' license photos--has lagged behind.

 

As Attorney General, I've had the privilege of traveling the state and meeting with local law enforcement to talk about what we can do at the state level to help them do their jobs better. One issue that's been repeatedly raised is the desirability of the TIME system to carry drivers' license photos. And it's an issue with good reason. Public safety and law enforcement can be considerably enhanced by enabling real-time access to DOT photos.

 

Consider an elderly woman, suffering from dementia yet physically healthy. She's discovered to be missing as a Wisconsin winter evening approaches. She is probably wandering, possibly abducted. An inquiry to the TIME system may yield her driver's license picture, which can be transmitted to all officers in the area so they will know instantaneously who they are searching for, saving considerable time, and possibly saving her life.

 

Electronic access to DOT photos through the TIME system would also improve officer safety. Consider a traffic stop, a common yet dangerous duty performed by officers every day. When the officer first approaches the vehicle, he or she typically has no idea who the occupants are. A produced ID or self-identification could be false. With real-time electronic access to DOT photos, the officer will quickly be alerted to a false identification and the increased potential for a dangerous situation. Knowing the driver has lied about his identity, the officer will radio for help and wait to re-approach the car until back up arrives and it can be done more safely. Most false identifications are given to officers because the driver has something to hide, whether a revoked license, identity theft, or an arrest warrant. What may have been a dangerous traffic stop without electronic access to DOT photos might become the safe apprehension of a fugitive with electronic access to photos.

 

Moreover, electronic access to drivers' license photographs might prevent misidentification where people share names.

 

The good news is that we have the capability to do this. In recent years, the TIME system has undergone technical modifications so that it can handle transmitting digital images. To be sure, some technical changes will need to be worked out; we have to enable DOJ computers to talk to DOT's computers so that we can receive DOT images. And we'll have to program our computers to transmit those images upon receiving a request bearing the appropriate electronic signature.

 

This isn't costless. But there is federal grant money available to promote the interstate driver photo sharing, and we anticipate being eligible for and receiving some funds to offset costs. Moreover, I intend to cover the difference between federal funds and expected costs without asking for a new appropriation or delaying other critical projects. Through litigation, the Department of Justice periodically receives funds that I have some discretion in spending. I am committed to using these limited funds to enhance DOJ operations and law enforcement projects that have a strong nexus to the agency. Upgrading TIME to enable real-time access to DOT photos is such a project. It makes DOJ better, and it makes local law enforcement and the communities they protect safer.

 

Law already permits law enforcement access to driver photos through written requests, but the process takes considerable time. Technology exists to effectuate the policy behind the current law instantaneously. It is time for the law to permit law enforcement to take full advantage of modern technology - for their safety, and for the safety of the public they serve.