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Gallatin County law enforcement will be installing a camera that reads license plate numbers along Highway 191.

The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office and Missouri River Drug Task Force recently published a legal notice in the Chronicle, advertising they would install the automated “information technology system” near mile marker 46.

Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin did not respond to a request for comment.

The drug task force covers several counties in Montana, but Gallatin and Lewis and Clark are designated as “high intensity drug trafficking area.”

Drug task force Capt. Ryan Stratman said in an email that the reader was paid for by a grant through the Drug Enforcement Agency for places known for high drug trafficking. Gallatin County is one of 28 of those places on the DEA's list.

The grant is administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy to coordinate and share information between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies, according to the DEA's website.

To qualify for the grant, applicants have to be in a significant center of illegal drug activity, the website said. Other criteria includes drug activity has had a harmful impact on the area and that governments have committed resources to respond to the drug trafficking problem.

Stratman said the reader identifies license plates only, not occupants in a car, and that law enforcement is required to have an active criminal investigation to use the information. He said the reader is not a traffic camera that generates citations.

Readers elsewhere have helped with several local criminal investigations this year that lead to sexual assault and custodial interference charges, Stratman said.

“(The drug task force) utilizes the (reader) system throughout the U.S. for major cases involving drug trafficking organization, transporting of meth and heroin into our communities,” he said.

In 2017, legislators passed a bill that set guidelines for information captured on license plate readers. The bill allows law enforcement to keep information past 90 days upon request that shows the information is being sought by a search warrant or as part of an ongoing criminal or missing persons investigation.

The legal notice said the cameras are used to determine ownership of a car, mileage or route traveled, the location of the car and occupants of a car on public highways.

“Access to the (license plate reader’s) data is restricted to authorized personnel in furtherance of a criminal justice purpose,” the notice said.

An authorized user of the database may share the information with another law enforcement agency, as defined by Montana law. However, the notice said, any other use of this data is prohibited. An agency that shares information with other law enforcement, the notice said, will document where the information was sent and the agency that received the information.

The American Civil Liberties Union maintains that implementation of such automatic plate readers pose threats to privacy and other civil liberties.

According to a 2013 report from the organization, location data can reveal sensitive information about a person’s habits and opens the opportunity for abusive tracking, institutional abuse and discriminatory targeting.

The report said more cameras, longer retention periods and widespread sharing allow law enforcement to pinpoint where people are traveling. The report said pictures are entered into a permanent database that is shared widely “with few or no restrictions on how they can be used.”

“If not properly secured, license plate reader databases open the door to abusive tracking, enabling anyone with access to pry into the live of his boss, his ex-wife, or his romantic, political, or workplace rivals,” the report said.

This article was updated to include comments from Missouri River Drug Task Force Capt. Ryan Stratman.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at or at 406-582-2630.

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