PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Jan. 10, 2019) – A bill introduced in the Rhode Island House would prohibit “roadway surveillance,” including the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) without a warrant in most situations. Passage into law would also place significant roadblocks in the way of a federal program using states to help track the location of millions of everyday people through pictures of their license plates.

A coalition of four Democrats introduced House Bill 5042 (H5042) on Jan. 9. The legislation would prohibit “roadway surveillance” and bar police from using ALPRs  unless “undertaken by law enforcement in the investigation of a particular violation, misdemeanor, or felony pursuant to a warrant or court order based on probable cause.”

H5402 defines “roadway surveillance” as:

“The act of determining the ownership of a motor vehicle or the identity of a motor vehicle’s occupants on the public roadways of the state or its political subdivisions through the use of a camera or other imaging device, or any other device, including, but not limited to, a transponder, cellular telephone, global positioning satellite, EZ-Pass, automated license plate recognition systems or radio frequency identification device, that by itself or in conjunction with other devices or information can be used to determine the ownership of a motor vehicle, the identity of a motor vehicle’s occupants or the mileage, locations, speed of travel and routes traveled by the motor vehicle.”

The proposed law would also bar state agencies from purchasing, receiving, or reviewing data from a private entity that has engaged in surveillance in a manner that would violate the law. H5042 would allow warrantless roadway surveillance in exigent circumstances and to locate missing persons.

The proposed law would put strict limitations on the retention and sharing of data gathered by license plate readers. Sharing of information would be prohibited without a court order. Any data that does not identify a violation of the law would have to be destroyed within 72 hours unless there is a court order for its retention. All data that does identify a violation of the law would have to be destroyed within one year after the citation is resolved by administrative payment, trial, or other final disposition.

Any information gathered in violation of the law would be inadmissible in court.

“Any evidence obtained as a result of surveillance use prohibited by this chapter shall be inadmissible in any civil action, except as evidence of a violation of this section. Nothing contained herein shall be construed to preclude any investigation otherwise based upon any legally sufficient cause.”

Passage of this bill would prevent the state from creating permanent databases using information collected by ALPRs, and would make it highly unlikely that such data would end up in federal databases.


As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), tracks the location of millions of vehicles through data provided by ALPRs operated on a state and local level. They’ve engaged in this for nearly a decade, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.

State and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems, paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the “crime” of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.

ALPRs can scan, capture and record thousands of license plates every minute and store them in massive databases, along with date, time and location information.

Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) through open records requests encompassed information compiled by 200 law enforcement agencies that utilize ALPRs. The data revealed more than 2.5 billion license plate scans in just two years (2016 and 2017).

Perhaps more concerning, this gigantic sample of license plate scans reveals that 99.5 percent of this data was collected regardless of whether the vehicle or its owner were suspected of being involved in criminal activity. On average, agencies share this data with a minimum of 160 other agencies. In some cases, agencies share this data with as many as 800 other agencies.

Police generally configure ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of a vehicle’s license plate, which is bad enough. But according to records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, these systems also capture photographs of drivers and their passengers.

With the FBI rolling out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, and the federal government building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends, the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed data revealing their location and activities. With this kind of information, government agents can easily find individuals without warrants or oversight, for any reason whatsoever.

Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, laws banning or even restricting ALPR use are essential. As more states pass such laws, the end result becomes more clear. No data equals no federal license plate tracking program.


H5402 was referred to the House Judiciary Committee where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.

Mike Maharrey

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