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Technology Helps Probation Department Find More Stolen Vehicles

301st stolen car found Thursday due to car-mounted cameras that scan license plates.

Before Don Meyer retires from the Sacramento County Probation Office at the end of the month, he wants to leave a mark. As the only probation department in the state with automated license plate readers, it recovered its 301st stolen vehicle Thursday afternoon.

"It's instantaneous," said Meyer, chief probation officer for Sacramento County. "We ended up outfitting a third car recently, so we'll probably end up with even more."

With some extra general fund money in 2010, the department purchased three devices – two mounted on vehicles, and the other for the building itself – which each comprise four cameras. Each camera – which scans the license plate, digitizes the information and runs it through a state stolen car database, focuses on a different area, working in concert to attain as close to a 360-degree view as possible.

If it's been reported stolen, the laptop in the vehicle will pipe up with "stolen vehicle" in an English accent, Meyer said, and the officer can then call dispatch to verify its status.

The technology has been a boon to the Sacramento area, which is a hotspot nationwide for stolen vehicles. The region recently dropped from being the nation's No. 6 spot per capita for auto thefts, to No. 13, Meyer said, which he attributes in part to the department's efforts. "We're always out there and have arrested a number of prolific auto thieves," he said.

On Thursday afternoon, Meyer and some deputies went out patrolling specifically for stolen vehicles, and within an hour, found a Toyota pickup stolen from Citrus Heights on Oct. 28. Less than 10 minutes later, they found another stolen vehicle – a 1993 Honda – stolen from Fair Oaks on Halloween.

"Usually if we get one, we'll get another within a block or so," Meyer said. "That's pretty common, one time in an apartment complex, they got four stolen cars."

And they're usually easy to spot without the use of the license plate readers, he said, as many are left in disarray, with windows partly down, seat belts hanging out the doors, and parked along fence lines. The most commonly stolen vehicles are mid-'90s Hondas and Toyotas, but others aren't immune, Meyer said. 

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