FOLLY BEACH — State-of-the-art cameras soon will record the license plates of every vehicle entering and leaving the island in a new initiative that taps into crime-fighting technology increasingly used across the country.
Folly will be Charleston County's first beach town to deploy the license plate scanners.
The devices have proven their value as a crime deterrent and investigative tool, said Andrew Gilreath, director of the Folly Department of Public Safety.
He sought to dispel any public misconceptions about the purpose of the license plate readers.
"These aren't speed cameras, they don't mail you tickets, there is no facial recognition," he said.
While the American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns about the tag scanners and privacy, Gilreath said the Folly cameras will be for law enforcement purposes only.
"I do not have the staff, time, nor inclination to care when or how many times Mr. or Mrs. X comes to Folly Beach," he said. "In fact, all over this area, thousands of folks a day pass these types of cameras, and it doesn't affect them in the least."
Folly City Council recently OK'd $22,000 for the license plate readers.
Mayor Tim Goodwin said the cameras also will provide a live view of traffic that will be publicly available through a link at the town website.
A law enforcement alert will be triggered if a scanned plate matches a stolen car, an Amber Alert or other suspected criminal activity, officials said.
An ACLU spokeswoman said use of license plate scanners is OK if it is narrowly tailored for law enforcement purposes, but she worried about the potential for abusing the technology.
"They keep records on the whereabouts of everyone. There is a chance it could just be a system for tracking and surveillance of all people," said Shaundra Scott, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina.
The cameras scan a license plate and take a photo that is tagged with time, date and GPS location, she said, adding, "We do not really like this idea."
A pending state House bill would regulate automatic license plate readers by establishing allowed uses, such as checking criminal and motor vehicle records, parking enforcement, and verification of trucker logs and registration. The data could be preserved for up to 90 days.
Information from license readers that is part of an ongoing investigation must be destroyed if no charges are filed, the bill says. It is sponsored by state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, and state Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington. Their legislation was referred to the House Committee on Education and Public Works, according to the General Assembly website.
Tens of thousands of license plate readers already are deployed around the country, the ACLU reports. These cameras alert law enforcement when a "hot list" license plate associated with criminal activity is scanned.
Folly will have two license plate recognition cameras, one for traffic entering the island and the other for outgoing traffic. The cameras will be mounted in a fixed location.
The island has partnered with NDI Technologies, which provides license plate readers to nearly 40 city, county, state and federal agencies in South Carolina, according to information provided to the Folly council.
The cameras also can be fixed or deployed in patrol cars. They read license plates day and night in all types of weather, even if a vehicle is traveling over 100 mph, the manufacturer says.
North Charleston and Charleston have fixed-location cameras, officials said.
"We also have one in a police car, but the reader is being repaired," said Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis.
Mount Pleasant has access to a license plate reader installed on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, said police spokesman Chip Googe.
Edisto Beach installed the technology in 2015. The police chief there could not be reached for comment.
The license plate readers will be installed at Folly Beach in four to six weeks, Gilreath said.
In addition, a new set of electronic eyes will greet visitors to the Folly Beach pier. The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission installed six motion-activated cameras near the end of the pier to replace outdated technology. Park staff can log onto the system for a live view, but the system is primarily a video record of what goes on at the pier, officials said.
The pier cameras will help monitor after-hours trespassing and illegal shark fishing, officials said.