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Kashmeri: Need To Know

06/14/12 5:55PM By Sarwar Kashmeri
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(Host) Commentator Sarwar Kashmeri is usually concerned with matters of international business and national security, but when the citizens of Norwich recently turned down a request from the town's Police Department to buy a computerized license plate reader - he took notice.

(Kashmeri) Norwich isn't the kind of haven for criminals or terrorists that would justify the routine scanning of licenses. And as I thought about how the unintended consequences might far outweigh the benefits, I was reminded of the interview that took place during my application for United States citizenship.

Everything was going smoothly until the genial immigration official leaned back in his chair and said "Mr. Kashmeri, I see you have said on your application that there are no outstanding arrest warrants against your name."

"That is correct," I answered."

He pulled a piece of paper from my folder and handed it to me. It was an arrest warrant from the Saint Louis Police Department with my name on it.

For a minute or so, though it seemed like an eternity, we just sat there looking at each other. Neither of us said anything. We didn't need to. Both of us knew that making a false statement under oath to obtain citizenship meant automatic dismissal of the application.

Then it dawned on me: years ago I'd lived in Saint Louis and driven a rather fast sports car that was a magnet for speeding tickets. When some of them went unpaid, a bench warrant was issued for my arrest.
I went to the local precinct, confessed all, paid the tickets, was given a tongue lashing by the Sergeant and swore to behave myself. That was decades ago and I've never received another citation for speeding.

But the Police in Saint Louis are like those in any other jurisdiction. Updating records in computer files ranks low in a usually overloaded daily schedule. Obviously the Saint Louis police had not entered my ticket payments into their computer - which would have cleared the warrant.
I sheepishly explained all this to the emigration officer. "But didn't you help design that police computer system?" he asked in a voice dripping with sarcasm.
Embarrassed, I then admitted I was indeed one of the founders of the criminal justice computer complex in Saint Louis. And I was well aware that one of the things that makes these local law enforcement systems so effective is they connect through the FBI's computers in Washington DC to the police computers of all 50 states - which brings me back to Norwich and those license plate readers.

I happened to personally know the right officials in Saint Louis and got myself out of the jam within hours. But if a tourist from Nebraska were arrested in Norwich on an incorrect arrest warrant that showed up on a license check, I suspect that tourist might have a very uncomfortable few days.

And the problems created by incomplete or erroneous records will only increase as it becomes easier to collect personal information. That's why citizens need to continuously balance legitimate law enforcement needs with the risks posed by information collection technology.

To their credit, the citizens of Norwich did this, and I think they got it right.
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