Montana’s first automated license plate reader (ALPR) soon will be installed on Highway 191 south of Big Sky, providing law enforcement officers with a “valuable crime-solving tool,” according to a Missouri River Drug Task Force spokesman.

Task Force Commander and Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office Captain Ryan Stratman said the task force received a grant to install the device after the 2017 Legislature authorized the use of ALPRs in Montana. Though it will be the first one in the state, Stratman said local officers already are accustomed to using ALPR data in their investigations.

“We use these quite often for drug trafficking coming into Montana because surrounding states have them,” Stratman explained. “When we get into the system, it gives us access to cameras all over the United States.”

The task force primarily utilizes data from Idaho’s ALPRs for the investigation of drug trafficking organizations bringing methamphetamine into the area. Stratman said the task force chose to place its new camera on Highway 191 because other states already are collecting data on other major thoroughfares coming into Montana.

“Highway 191 is a major corridor coming into Gallatin County,” he said. “It’ll pick up traffic coming and going.”

The ALPR will be situated at mile marker 46 south of Big Sky.

Aware that the collection of license plate data might spark privacy concerns, Stratman stressed law enforcement agencies are able to access the system only when they have a “reasonable suspicion” of a crime they are investigating.

“It’s no different than access for a law enforcement officer checking a license plate,” he said. “They will be used for investigative purposes.”

He added the system does not identify occupants of vehicles, but only the license plate numbers.

“We’re very cautious,” he said. “People have an expectation of privacy – this is just a tool for us to use.”

The data collected by the system will be useful in solving other crimes, and also for notification of Amber and other community alerts.

Stratman cited a number of cases solved in the past several years because of license plate data collected in neighboring states.

In 2012, an 11-year-old was abducted and sexually assaulted in Cody, Wyo. An ALPR alert showed the suspect’s vehicle traveled through Yellowstone National Park – he was found and arrested in Manhattan.

In 2018, a man stole who thousands of dollars from Montana residents who prepaid for lawn care services he never performed. He was apprehended in Florida after the ALPR system alerted to his whereabouts.

Earlier this year, a runaway girl was taken out of Montana by a man she befriended on the Internet. After his license plate was data was entered into the system, he was apprehended in Texas, and the girl was found with him. He was extradited to Montana and recently pleaded guilty.

And as recently as June, a sexual assault suspect was picked up in another state because of an ALPR alert. He is awaiting extradition to Montana.

The Missouri River Drug Task Force is a multi-agency organization that investigates drug trafficking in Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Park, Meagher, Madison, Broadwater and Sweet Grass counties. Gallatin and Lewis and Clark counties are part of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). The task force was awarded a HIDTA grant to pay for the $16,200 ALPR, on the condition that it be placed in one of the two HIDTA counties.