WATERTOWN — The Jefferson County Board of Legislators voted to reject a grant for Operation Stonegarden on Tuesday, the first time in recent memory that the annual grant agreement has been rejected.
Operation Stonegarden is a federal grant program overseen by FEMA that provides funding to state, local and tribal law enforcement to enhance border security, according to documents from the Department of Homeland Security.
Jefferson County was set to receive $113,832.50, to be split among the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and the village of Alexandria Bay and village of Clayton’s police departments. The grant included $28,950 for overtime pay, $4,000 for maintenance and repairs, as well as over $9,000 for retirement funds, social security and workers compensation.
Legislators disagreed with the grant’s inclusion of $64,152.50 for license plate readers.
Legislator Jeremiah J. Maxon, a Republican representing the towns of Adams, Lorraine, Rodman and Worth, led the charge against the bill, criticizing license plate readers specifically.
“Rather than saving lives, rather than preventing terrorism, these license plate scanners generally are used to collect money from people whose only crime is being poor,” Mr. Maxon said during Tuesday’s legislature meeting.
He argued that license plate readers are often misused, with their data sold to private companies, tied into other systems to gather more data, or used by police to target private citizens for blackmail.
Mr. Maxon referenced the 1998 case where a police lieutenant in Washington, D.C. pleaded guilty to extortion for using license plate reader data to blackmail the owners of vehicles that were frequently parked near a gay bar.
He also talked about how government-run license plate scanners have been used by private companies to track down vehicles for repossession, and by governments to track down cars with lapsed insurance.
“Knowing that is has been misused, knowing that it will be misused again, the government has come to our legislative board and has asked you to expand their surveillance of our citizens without a compelling reason,” he said on Tuesday.
Mr. Maxon convinced his fellow legislators to vote against the bill, which was voted down 10 to 5.
Colleen O’Neill, the Jefferson County Sheriff, disagreed with the legislature’s decision to reject the grant in a letter to the editor published in Friday’s Watertown Daily Times.
“A legislator’s voice was heard about how this technology is an invasion of privacy and therefore should be defunded,” the sheriff wrote. “He was successful. 10 legislators, without research, questions or input from law enforcement voted to eliminate the Department of Homeland Security’s federal grant of $113,832.50.”
Sheriff O’Neill wrote that license plate readers have been used to solve thousands of crimes, including when a reader in Idaho caught the car of a murder suspect who was attempting to escape after stabbing his girlfriend to death in Rochester in 2018.
She also argued that license plate reader databases do not contain the names of the owners of the vehicles that they scan, only a photo of the license plate. She wrote that the data can only be linked to an individual when cross-referenced with DMV databases, which is only allowed for specific purposes by trained officers.
“It is very discouraging to see personal agendas prevail over the good of the community,” Sheriff O’Neill wrote.
Mr. Maxon believes that this issue is not over. By the rules of the legislature, a bill that has been voted down cannot be readdressed for three months.
“Every victory for liberty is temporary,” he said Thursday. “I know that in three months they’re going to bring this resolution back, they’re going to have some other program, they’re going to come and plead ‘think of the children,’ and try and sell us on some other angle for Operation Stonegarden.”