RICHMOND, Va. (Nov. 13, 2020) – The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that a police department’s use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) does not violate state privacy laws.
In effect, the ruling will allow law enforcement agencies in Virginia to indefinitely keep data from automated license plate readers, including a record of the time and place where the system photographed the vehicle.
A lower court ruling barred the Fairfax Police Department from using ALPRs, but the state’s high court reasoned that since the system does not include personal information such as phone numbers or addresses, it does not violate state privacy laws. The court acknowledged that police can cross-reference information gathered by ALPRs with other databases to obtain such personal information, but since it isn’t part of the ALPR data, the license plate scanning system isn’t illegal.
The decision ends a five-year legal battle waged by the ACLU to force Virginia police departments to purge ALPR data from their systems. According to the Washington Post, Fairfax County police keep ALPR data for up to a year. Other agencies store the information for as long as 2 years. But there is nothing to stop law enforcement agencies in Virginia from establishing permanent databases of ALPR information.
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.
Virginia twice failed to put meaningful limits on the use of ALPR systems. In 2015, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed a bill that would have prohibited the retention of data collected by ALPRs for more than seven days and ban that data from “outside inquiries or internal usage, except in the investigation of a crime or missing persons report.” In 2017, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates rejected a bill that would have put a 60-day limit on the retention of ALPR data.
Despite the court ruling, the legislature can still place limits on the use of ALPRs and restrict data storage and data sharing.
Without limits on storage and sharing of ALPR data, local and state ALPR information also ends up in federal databases.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL PROGRAMS
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.
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.
This is why it’s imperative for states to limit the use of ALPR systems, and restrict ALPR data storage and sharing. Limiting ALPRs at the state level takes a good first step toward putting a big dent in federal plans to continue location tracking and expanding its facial recognition program. The less data that states make available to the federal government, the less ability it has to track people in Virginia and elsewhere.