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Ventura County

Supervisors Eye $1 Vehicle Tax

Finance: Fee, added to registration cost, would generate $570,000 a year for high-tech fingerprint machines at county's smaller police stations.

October 07, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County motorists would pay a buck more each year to register a car under a proposal the Board of Supervisors will consider on Tuesday.

The $1-a-vehicle surcharge would raise about $570,000 a year, money that would be used to buy and install computerized fingerprint machines at the county's smaller police agencies.

A portion of the funds would also maintain high-tech fingerprint equipment already in place at two county jails and an east county booking station, said Sheriff Bob Brooks.

A 1997 state law authorized counties to collect the fee if supervisors determine that there is a need to update crime-fighting technology, Brooks said. The county initially used state grants to cover the cost of buying new equipment, but the sheriff said that revenue has dried up.

With the surcharge, fingerprint machines can be installed in Fillmore, Moorpark, Ojai, Port Hueneme and Santa Paula, said Brooks. Because of the steep cost, those cities have not yet updated their equipment.

"It's been a tremendous crime-fighting tool for the larger agencies," Brooks said of the equipment. "Now we'd like to expand it so all these databases can be linked."

The new technology does away with the ink-and-roll method of taking fingerprints. Suspects are asked to place a hand on a glass-topped counter--similar to a copy machine--that scans palms and fingerprints in minute detail. Digitized copies are stored in computer databases for future use, either to identify suspects or to link them to a crime scene.

Until recently, detectives had to painstakingly sift through thick notebooks when searching for a match to fingerprints, shoe prints or bullet shell casings taken from a crime scene. Today, images of such evidence can be scanned into a computer.

In a matter of hours, sometimes minutes, the computer can search for a match through the databases of other police agencies, the state Department of Justice and the FBI.

State law specifies that the new technology be used primarily to help identify motorists suspected of driving drunk or committing other crimes involving a vehicle, said sheriff's Cmdr. Brent Morris. But the stored information has also been helpful in solving other crimes and could eventually be used as a tool to apprehend suspected terrorists, said Morris, who heads the department's technical services division.

"There are plans to eventually link to federal government databases," he said. "There are so many forms of identification that it is much more secure to use fingerprints to identify someone."

Santa Paula Police Chief Bob Gonzales said he welcomes any help his department can get. His officers still roll suspects' fingerprints onto paper and then attach a copy of them to a report. The new system would allow officers to instantly add fingerprints to a centralized database.

"It would be money well spent," Gonzales said. "I hope the supervisors approve it."

At least one supervisor, however, is questioning whether the surcharge--which would expire in five years--should be approved.

Board Chairman John Flynn is not convinced that supervisors should approve a new tax to underwrite the technology update. Many social and health care services in the county are underfunded, he noted.

Flynn said he is irritated that the proposal was placed as a consent item, a portion of the agenda typically reserved for issues that are not controversial.

"We should never put a new tax on the consent agenda," he said. "A dollar doesn't sound like much, but a lot of people might not agree."

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