Stockard on the Stump: Lee Administration walking tightrope on license plate readers

May 20, 2022 6:00 am
License plate reading technology. (Photo: Getty Images)

License plate reading technology. (Photo: Getty Images)

With questions about privacy and compelling public interest, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration appears to be treading lightly – if not reversing – on policy surrounding automated license plate readers and the state’s new blue license tags, which some cameras can’t read at night.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation in late March turned down a request by Ridley Police Department to put up an automated license plate reader along a state highway right of way, citing an “ongoing review of the state’s role in ALPR implementation with privacy, the collection/use of information and assessing compelling public safety need.”

In addition, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security is “working directly with local agencies to determine the variability of LPR technology as widespread software updates are needed for successful implementation,” the letter from interim Commissioner Joseph Galbato said. He has since been replaced by Deputy Governor Butch Eley.

Ripley Police Chief Mitchell Turner is a bit miffed by the rejection.

“It’s an investigative tool,” he says, the same type of camera Ripley has in town and that Shelby County and Tipton County sheriff’s departments use. “It’s nothing that has to do with citations.”

He has no idea when the state will allow Ripley to post a camera on the state highways in and out of town.

The Legislature authorized the Department of Transportation in 2021 to permit law enforcement agencies to install surveillance cameras on interstate and state highway rights of way for non-highway use to help with criminal investigations and searches for missing and endangered people as long as they don’t interfere with free and safe flow of traffic, maintenance and highway safety.

But in response to questions from the Tennessee Lookout, Transportation Deputy Commissioner Paul Degges pointed out state law doesn’t require the department to approve the cameras. Since passage of the law, the department started developing a process to permit them.

Gina Coleman has lived in Haynes Park for 39 years and she and neighbors raised $4,500 for 2 security cameras in the neighborhood. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Not all neighborhoods are averse to license plate readers or neighborhood surveillance. Gina Coleman has lived in Haynes Park for 39 years and she and neighbors raised $4,500 for 2 security cameras in the neighborhood. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Degges also confirmed a review is being made of the state’s role in putting the cameras into use, dealing with privacy, collection and use of information and an assessment of compelling public safety needs. The review is being coordinated with the Governor’s Office and Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

“The issue of cameras on state highway right of way has long been a concern of elected policy makers in both the executive and legislative branches of government in Tennessee and the department seeking to ensure that a thorough vetting has taken place before implementing any new policies,” Degges said in his written response.

The Legislature passed the law in 2021, partly because of public complaints about red-light cameras, the hundreds of thousands of dollars they generate for local government and vendors, and questions about their constitutionality.

Motorists have complained for years that they shouldn’t have to pay a ticket for a violation recorded by a camera, mainly because they aren’t given an opportunity to face their accuser in court. In most cases, the ticket also goes to the owner of the vehicle, instead of the person driving the vehicle when the alleged violation is recorded.

Thus, the 2021 law was designed by libertarian-leaning lawmakers to help law enforcement focus on major criminal investigations and searches for missing and endangered people.

Questions about cameras came into greater focus this year when it was discovered that many of the automated license plate readers in the state can’t read the new license plates, which have white lettering on a dark blue background. The Lee Administration selected those tags after a public survey – replacing the lighter-colored tags that were white with a soft green outline of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Screen grab of Gov. Bill Lee at Wednesday's press briefing.
Gov. Bill Lee at a June press briefing.

The Governor’s Office declined to respond to questions this week about whether it is slow-walking permits for cameras or is concerned about losing libertarian votes in this year’s gubernatorial race.

But Department of Revenue spokeswoman Kelly Cortesi said the state has no plans to change the standard license plate. As of Monday, the state had issued about 1.9 million plates with the new design, out of roughly 5.5 million.

A Department of Revenue study found that the reflective sheeting on license plates fails to produce the reflection needed for some license plate readers to read. Two tests were conducted, and two of the camera systems used across the state proved successful while three others struggled mightily. 

Still, no changes are to be made in the plates, which were produced through a $27 million contract with TRICOR (Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative in Correction) in the state’s prison system.  

Oddly enough, questions about privacy and compelling public interest align the Lee Administration with liberals on the Metro Nashville City Council who opposed the use of automated license plate readers because they felt the cameras would be used to go after certain people


This ain’t over (maybe)

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled this week the governor’s education savings account program doesn’t violate the Home Rule Amendment to the state Constitution, which says the Legislature can’t make laws that target counties.

For the second time this year, the high court appeared to say the Constitution doesn’t say what it says. It recently determined that the state Senate’s redistricting plan was OK even though it contains non-consecutive districts in Davidson County, which the Constitution says it’s not supposed to do. The court determined that it’s better to draw a plan that helps a certain party rather than possibly creating too much confusion in the electorate.

Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee on September 15, 2021. East High School in Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)
East High School in Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

This time, the court decided the governor’s voucher program could be challenged by Metro Nashville and Shelby County, but that the Home Rule doesn’t apply to its school districts, even though the local government bodies control budgets for those districts.

It appears the governor’s voucher program is good to go, allowing low-income students in Metro Nashville and Shelby districts to use state funds to enroll in private schools.

But the American Civil Liberties Union says a separate lawsuit filed in March 2020 by Shelby and Davidson parents could throw a wrench in the proceedings. 

The plaintiffs in McEwen v. Lee contend that diverting millions of dollars from Memphis and Nashville schools to private schools violates the Home Rule provision and also students’ rights to “adequate and equitable educational opportunities guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution.”

The legal team representing McEwen argue that the court’s ruling “does not mean the voucher law is constitutional.”

“This voucher legislation violates several other provisions of the Tennessee Constitution, including the Education and Equal Protection clauses, and those claims have yet to be litigated. The McEwen plaintiffs have asserted these constitutional claims from the beginning of the litigation challenging the voucher law, and intend to continue to vigorously pursue them,” according to a statement from the ACLU. 

The plaintiffs are represented by the Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as ACLU of Tennessee and Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd law firm.

Penny Schwinn, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education (Photo:
Penny Schwinn  (Photo:

While critics of the voucher law believe it will rob public schools of the money they need to educate a diverse student population, groups such as the American Federation for Children-Tennessee say the court made the right decision.

“School choice programs work. They empower parents with the resources to find schools that better fit their unique needs and they foster innovation,” State Director John Patton said in a statement. “These programs encourage both private and public schools to create new and better options for all students. At the American Federation for Children, we remain focused on students, not systems, and we will always advocate to empower families to make the best decision for their kids.”

It sounds reminiscent of the argument Gov. Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn made this year in pushing a new “student-based” funding formula to passage. Lee recently signed it into law.

The ESA bill was touted as sending about $7,300 with up to 5,000 students to private schools. But under the new formula, students could receive several thousand more, based on poverty, rural locations and learning problems such as dyslexia. Thus, what was believed to cost about $25 million in its first year could nearly double that amount.

But the state’s coffers are overflowing, so it won’t have any trouble coming up with the money for Gov. Lee’s pet project.

Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee State Director Tori Venable said, “This is great news for Tennessee students. We worked hard in 2019 to make sure kids in failing schools had access to a better education and more opportunities. With this ruling, education savings accounts could be a very real option for families in the future – starting with the areas that need it most.”

It sounds as if AFP-TN thinks vouchers will expand statewide, and the way things are going with the courts, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the continued chipping away at public schools.


Don’t call it boring

Just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water, I attended a meeting of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

Normally, these meetings are hum-drum affairs filled with self-deprecating humor and bogus conflict.

But Wednesday’s meeting was moved to the Nashville Room of the Tennessee Tower and a state trooper was called to attend just in case something happened.

Sure enough, as the Registry began to consider whether to reconsider a $360,000 civil penalty against Metro City Councilman Jonathan Hall, it ran into conflict with Mark Clayton, a former gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidate.

Metro Councilmember Jonathan Hall (Photo:
Metro Councilmember Jonathan Hall (Photo:

Clayton took to the podium to do something, though nobody could figure out exactly what he was saying because he sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Maybe he failed to turn on the mic.

Registry staff later said he was defending Hall, who repeatedly has failed to turn in and fill out campaign disclosure forms, thus drawing a hefty penalty. Hall’s also been censured by the Metro City Council.

Apparently, Clayton called the Registry’s office the previous day and got sideways with the staff, who relayed concern that he could show up Wednesday and cause trouble. 

He immediately got into a heated match with Registry member Tom Lawless, who asked if he was threatening the board.

Clayton responded loudly, “You just made a criminal accusation.” 

The quick back-and-forth led staff to have the state trooper escort Mr. Clayton from the room. 

“I’ll see you in court,” Clayton shouted, before telling the trooper not to touch him.

The trooper promised he wouldn’t put hands on him.

Unfortunately, things quickly settled back into a regular Registry meeting.

Board member Hank Fincher, who attended by phone as usual, said, “Another satisfied customer.”

The board then opted against reconsidering Hall’s penalty and left the matter in the hands of the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office. 

Clayton, who was considered one of the worst U.S. Senate candidates of 2012, wound up hindering Hall more than he helped his friend, if they are friends. 

But, seriously, good luck collecting that $360,000.


Hope for weed?

The headline on the press release says Tennessee Department of Education and University of Tennessee System will “establish the Tennessee Grow Your Own Center.”

For cannabis connoisseurs, it sounded like hope. They’ve been trying for years to legalize marijuana or medical cannabis or just about any form of weed that can relieve their heads, only to run into conservative lawmakers who won’t have it – at least not until the federal government recategorizes pot from a Schedule 1 drug.

Marijuana plants. (Photo: Getty Images)

But, NOOOOO! This is not a push to grow your own pot. Instead, it’s a $20 million investment to support “statewide scale for innovative educator pipeline work through Tennessee’s Teacher Apprenticeship model,” whatever the heck that means.

In its most basic definition, it’s a program to encourage people to become and remain teachers in Tennessee. But when it comes to education bureau-babble, it’s just hard to understand. That’s because half the time – or all the  time – they don’t want anyone to know what they’re saying as they spout out hundreds of words non-stop.

Anyway, as the son of two teachers, I’d encourage anyone who wants to work hard, challenge kids and enjoy a fulfilling life to enter the profession. At least that’s the way it was before the state started putting every bit of emphasis on one test at the end of the year.

But alas, you can always become a coach if all you care about is winning. Otherwise, you’ll be out of a job pretty fast.

“I brought my pencil. Give me something to write on, man!”

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.