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Pennsylvania drops vehicle registration stickers, but new tech too pricey for police

Brian C. Rittmeyer
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Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Harrison police Sgt. Brian Turack monitors traffic along Freeport Road in Harrison on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016. Starting in January, PennDOT will no longer issue registration stickers, which police check for on license plates. Local police would have to buy expensive license plate readers to determine whether a car's registration is current. It's something that municipalites say they can't afford.
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Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Since Pennsylvania has stopped issuing vehicle registration stickers, the AAA suggests drivers remove outdated stickers to avoid getting pulled over by police out-of-state.
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Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Harrison police Sgt. Brian Turack on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Beginning in January, PennDOT no longer will issue registration stickers for license plates. And local police departments say they cannot afford the scanners they will need to check license plates.

Police chiefs say they can’t afford the equipment departments will need next year to replace what officers now do with their eyes — check vehicle registrations.

Beginning Jan. 1, motorists no longer will be required to place registration stickers on their license plates. They were eliminated by legislation that was passed in 2013. Registration is still required, but the last sticker will be issued Dec. 30.

Ditching registration stickers is expected to save the state $3 million in production and mailing costs. But police departments could face a sizable expense — as much as $14,000 plus — to equip a single cruiser with automatic license plate readers that verify whether a car is registered and insured.

“To be honest with you, I don’t see how a department of our size could afford to outfit all of our vehicles with that sort of equipment,” Plum police Chief Jeff Armstrong said.

Armstrong said his department considered buying a plate reader for its traffic enforcement vehicle but decided it was too expensive. The department has 17 vehicles in its fleet.

PennDOT had proposed using part of the savings from eliminating the registration stickers to set up a grant program to help police agencies buy automatic license plate readers that scan license plates.

It didn’t happen.

“The Legislature didn’t include it in any legislation,” PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell said, adding that no money is available through the agency. “It’s not up to us.”

Cost an impediment

Elsag North America, which builds license plate reader systems, has been fielding requests for information from police departments in Western Pennsylvania, said Stephanie Pluchino, the company’s Northeast field operations manager.

The standard system for one police car, including installation, costs about $14,000, she said. It costs about $1,500 annually to operate one.

Several area police chiefs said those costs are simply beyond their means.

“My main focus is to keep the cars on the road and the employees in them,” said Delmont police Chief T.J. Klobucar, whose department just hired a fifth full-time officer. “That’s the main thing: personnel.”

Southwest Regional Police Chief John Hartman said he is looking into purchasing the equipment and any grants that may be available.

“We’re in the process of looking into all our options,” he said. “Clearly, cost does sit front and center in any equipment purchase.”

Southwest Regional provides police protection to five municipalities in Fayette and Washington counties.

State police have a few units in its specialized auto theft task force equipped with plate readers, spokesman Cpl. Adam Reed said. None of the patrol cars has them, and it is not anticipated they will be so equipped in the foreseeable future, he said.

Pittsburgh police patrol cars aren’t equipped with license plate readers, either, and the department has no plans to get them, said Emily Schaffer, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Public Safety Department.

Schaffer said the department never even discussed how many readers it would need because of the cost.

“The cost … is really what prevents us from purchasing them for our fleet,” she said.

Lawmaker blames Wolf

State Rep. Jeff Pyle, prime sponsor of the House bill that led to the end of registration stickers, blamed Gov. Tom Wolf for the lack of funds to help police buy plate readers.

“The governor went into that pot of money and took a lot more to fund state police functions than we anticipated he would,” said Pyle, a Ford City Republican. The money for police to buy plate readers got “eaten up,” he said.

Jeff Sheridan, a spokesman for Wolf, said Pyle is “wrong,” and that Wolf did not take money away from local police departments.

He said the governor tried to set up a grant program for local police but it was not approved by the Legislature.

“We support money being made available and are more than willing to work with the Legislature to approve such a program,” he said.

The issue has already come up in budget discussions, said Pyle, a member of the House appropriations committee.

“It’s not going under the radar,” he said. “We don’t know how we’re going to deal with it just yet.”

911 centers brace for calls

While some officers can use computers in their cars to run a license plate and check a vehicle’s registration, they can’t do it while driving. And not all police officers have computers in their cars.

Allegheny Township doesn’t have computers in its police cars because of their up-front and ongoing costs, Chief John Fontaine said. Without being able to look at a license plate and see if it’s valid, his officers will have to radio in to the county dispatch center to check registrations.

“The volume of calls strictly to run plates is going to skyrocket. It’s going to be a huge impact on the 911 centers,” Fontaine said. “A lot of the 911 centers are voicing their concerns with PennDOT. Their concern is: Do we have enough personnel to sit here and run license plates constantly?”

Armstrong County 911 Coordinator Ron Baustert, who is also a part-time officer in Apollo and Leechburg, said he is concerned about increased radio traffic. “Every plate that a police officer sees will not have a valid registration sticker on it anymore,” he said. “If you think about it, all of the cars are going to have an old tag.

“I am still trying to determine how we are going to handle that at this location,” he said. “I’m not going to panic now. We’ll wait and see what happens.”

Baustert said most Armstrong County police departments don’t have computers in their cars. The dispatch center now gets 40 to 50 calls to check license plates from traffic stops daily; he’s not sure how much that might increase.

“I’m not going to give a directive that police officers can’t run plates,” he said. “I am going to discuss it with the police chiefs and let them know my concerns.”

Speaking as a police officer, Baustert said doing away with registration stickers was a bad idea.

“There’s not enough savings to provide a license plate reader for every police car in this state,” he said.

Expired stickers raise flags

The changes will allow motorists the option to register their vehicles for two years as a convenience, and to print a permanent registration card at home. Those who in December renew their registrations that expire in January, February or March — before the new law takes effect — will be sent a sticker but won’t have to use it, Campbell said.

An expired registration sticker gives an officer probable cause to stop a car. Such stops often uncover other violations and, sometimes, criminal activity, Plum’s Armstrong said.

“If an individual isn’t disciplined enough to make sure their vehicle is registered properly, most likely they weren’t disciplined enough to do something else,” he said.

With all the equipment officers carry — computers, weapons, cameras — Harrison police Chief Mike Klein said at some point there’s concern about having enough room for an officer to fit in a car.

We’re all for upgrades in technology,” he said. “(But) we would like to assure that the most important part within that vehicle fits, and that’s the police officer.”

Without any money to buy plate readers, Klein said it’s akin to an unfunded mandate.

“I haven’t done the commonwealth’s math for them,” he said. “But if they want to assure that individuals maintain registration, and that law enforcement is one of their allies to assure that everybody is having their car registered and it’s paid for, then quite frankly, it was much easier when you could see it on the back of the license plate.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4701 or [email protected].

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