A South St. Paul car dealer used data stored by Minneapolis police license plate scanners to repossess a car on Thursday, likely the first time the records have been used by a business in Minnesota.
Jake Ingebrigtson, co-owner of Car and Credit Connection, sought information on four cars after reading in the Star Tribune that data captured by license plate cameras is public and retained for one year in Minneapolis. Ingebrigtson's company sells cars to people with bad credit and the owners of the cars had stopped making payments.
The data's value for a repo man illustrates just one of the potential applications of Minneapolis' massive database chronicling patterns of vehicles on its streets. Some privacy advocates fear that data could eventually be used for more sinister purposes.
Minneapolis deploys 10 license plate readers, eight of them mounted on police cars and traffic enforcement vehicles, that scan thousands of license plates each day and store their locations -- 4.9 million so far in 2012. Their primary use is to help police on patrol identify wanted vehicles in real time.
Two weeks after requesting the data from the city, Ingebrigtson picked it up Thursday morning. He noticed one car had been spotted seven times at the same location and, after plotting the coordinates on his Blackberry, quickly located it near the intersection of Lake Street and Interstate 35W in south Minneapolis.
"It was comical. I've been looking for this car for two months," Ingebrigtson said, adding that it was clear they were "hiding the car there."
The company had previously visited the owner's house in St. Paul, only to find a "for rent" sign in the window. "They fall off the face of the Earth," Ingebrigtson said of people who stop making payments. "They won't return your calls."
Fifteen minutes after locating the car, which was parked on a city street, Ingebrigtson's repo man arrived to tow it back to his lot.
"This is a thousand dollars that just got put in my pocket because of this, basically," Ingebrigtson said.
The city provided data on two other cars Ingebrigtson was looking for, but had no information on the fourth. Ingebrigtson planned to look for the other two Thursday evening. Some of the data on the car he repossessed included pictures, since police keep photos of the license plate scans for 21 days.
License plate readers are used by law enforcement across the metro area and the country. Other agencies using them in the Twin Cities region include St. Paul, Bloomington, Maplewood, Washington County and the State Patrol.
Without a state law governing the use of license plate readers, local law enforcement agencies are free to retain the location data for as long as they wish. St. Paul keeps it for 14 days, while the State Patrol keeps it for only 48 hours.
Minneapolis keeps it for one year. When the Star Tribune published data tracking Mayor R.T. Rybak's city-owned car over the past year, the mayor asked police Chief Tim Dolan to make a recommendation for a new policy about data retention.
Privacy advocates have recently called for the Legislature to craft legislation addressing license plate data classification, retention and sharing. Ingebrigtson hopes if the data is reclassified, lawmakers carve out some exemption for lien holders on a vehicle.
Rich Neumeister, a privacy and open government advocate, would like the data to remain public and kept by law enforcement for a very short period of time to ensure accountability.
"It comes down to the question: Who's going to watch the watchers if they make it private?" Neumeister said. "Who's going to watch all these private entities that might want it?"
This is not the first time Ingebrigtson, 33, has tracked down something elusive. He has twice found the St. Paul Winter Carnival medallion.
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper