Picture of government buikding.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a two-year expansion of license plate reading cameras for the Sheriff's Office. File photo.

License plate reading cameras are about to become more common along Silicon Valley roadways.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved an expansion of license plate reading cameras, adding coverage of unincorporated county areas that have not been annexed into neighboring cities. The expansion was approved without funding, which the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office needs to seek out. Supervisors also approved making it easier for the sheriff’s office to share license plate data with other law enforcement agencies.

“We currently have a closed system where there is no access to the system by any other public agency, and any request (for data) would have to go through us,” Sheriff Cpt. Ricardo Urena said at the meeting.

The expansion, which is capped at two years from the time the program is funded, will allow other agencies more open access to the data. But those agencies will need a case number to obtain the information, and the sheriff’s office needs to know who is accessing the information, Urena said.

Sheriff officials in a memo said they will look for alternate sources of funding for the cameras and will return to the board with a purchase request.

The expansion comes two years after residents in Saratoga and Los Altos Hills, with the help of sheriff officials, installed their own cameras around the area to combat burglaries. The sheriff’s office serves both communities.

Sheriff officials, along with letters to county supervisors from residents in these communities, urged an expansion of the system, hailing it as a great success in deterring criminal activity.

Yet Supervisor Joe Simitian, who represents both communities, publicly chafed over the idea.

“I frankly have a somewhat different take on this than many of my constituents,” Simitian said at the meeting. “I am not as convinced as some others of the utility of these as a crime fighting tool, I’ll just be very direct about that.”

Although he eventually voted in support of the expansion, Simitian said the cameras are ripe for abuse. He warned the cameras could identify the wrong people or breach their privacy.

“We are, in my view, pushing the envelope a bit,” Simitian said. “There needs to be due process protection for people who are misidentified. The technology is imperfect. It remains imperfect … What I don’t want to do is create a seven-step impenetrable process for some poor soul who gets misidentified and they are stuck in the system.”

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said she also had reservations about whether a two-year sunset on the new policy might bring unexpected complications.

“Once something is in place and being used … it’s very hard to roll it back,”  Ellenberg said. “I’m also twitchy about it.”

Supervisor Cindy Chavez called for more cameras in the eastern foothills of her district, but for a different reason.

“We have a neighborhood that is not plagued so much with robberies, but (with) significant issues of dangerous driving that’s resulted in numerous accidents and numerous injuries and people fleeing the scene,” Chavez said.

“I worry frankly that whenever the system doesn’t work the response is going to be, we just need to make the system looser and looser and broader and broader, and that’s of concern to me,” Simitian said.

Urena responded that the cameras are a resource, just like a witness would be a resource at the scene of a crime.

“There are no guarantees with cameras, there are no guarantees with life. We will do the best we can with those agreements in place and then look at the data as we’ve been discussing and see what that looks like,” Urena said.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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