Highway surveillance bill advances in Senate

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Rhode Island Senate panel on Thursday advanced a controversial bill that would create a privately-run surveillance system on state highways to scan license plates looking for out-of-state drivers who don’t have insurance.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send the bill to the full chamber for a final vote. The legislation is sponsored by Cranston Rep. Robert Jacquard, a Democrat, and already passed the House earlier this week.

The full Senate is scheduled to take up the bill Friday. If approved, it would go to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk for her signature, and she has expressed some reservations about the legislation.

“I’m going to be looking for a bill that balances protection of civil rights with highway safety,” she told reporters Wednesday.

Jacquard says the bill will increase enforcement and raise money, but opponents have denounced it as an infringement on civil liberties. The cost of the system would be covered by the private company that manages it, and that firm would split the revenue from fines with the state.

Under questioning before the Judiciary Committee, Jacquard declined to say if there is a specific company he expects to bid to manage the system. “It may not even come to fruition if there’s not a vendor out there who can do this as a reasonable program,” he said.

Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, noted that “somebody’s got to be making money off this.” Jacquard responded that more than 40 companies use data from the database involved in his proposal for purposes such as red-light cameras and toll enforcement.

Nesselbush remained skeptical. “There’s a little of a spying overtone to this,” she said, describing herself as “a little uncomfortable with it.” She noted comparisons have been made between Jacquard’s proposal and “1984,” the iconic George Orwell novel.

Jacquard replied, “I think Orwell was talking about thought control, not really whether or not people are actually violating the law.”

Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, defended Jacquard from the Orwell comparisons. Reading the book in high school, he said, “freaked me out. But ‘1984,’ I would submit to you, is probably 33 years irrelevant now. We live in 2017. … We’re in this world where Big Brother’s probably watching us already, and this is just an opportunity to make the roads safer, I think.”

No other state has created the type of highway surveillance system Jacquard’s bill would authorize, though some have considered it, he told the committee.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook