Civil Liberties Group Criticizes Police Use of License Plate Scanners

July 17, 2013

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says in a new report that local police departments are collecting millions of digital records using license plate scanners.

The report says the scanners are attached to police cars, bridges and buildings, capturing images of passing and parked cars.

The information from the scanners gets dumped into a database and can be used later.

Law enforcement officials say the practice can help assist with police work, such as finding stolen vehicles, but the ACLU says stricter rules are needed.

The Albemarle County and Charlottesville Police departments each have one license plate reader.

The device is mounted on the back of a police car and picks up information from the cars in its path -- including when and where.

"It just collects the license plate number and scans it into the database," said Lt. Ronnie Roberts of the Charlottesville Police Department. "The database keeps the information for approximately 30 days, and then from there it's eliminated from the database."

The database is searched for stolen vehicles -- which Roberts says is the most common use -- and those belonging to other suspected criminals.

"If we were investigating a case of a missing person, that a vehicle was involved in that missing person case, if the vehicle itself was returned to the area, we would be able to get a hit off the tag," said Roberts.

In the process, the scanners are also collecting and storing data from drivers who have committed no crime.

"Suddenly we have, because of technology, the ability for police to track your movements and to collect a lot of information about where you are during various points during your day," said Anne Coughlin, a University of Virginia professor of law.

There is no statue in Virginia that prohibits the use of the license plate readers, and individual police departments get to decide if and how often they erase the data that is collected.

"State legislators could, if they chose, step in and impose some regulations on the police," said Coughlin.

Coughlin says the device could leave drivers asking: Do we trust the police to police themselves?

"If this is not a matter where the courts will step in, and the state legislature hasn't yet stepped in, we really have to rely on the police to decide that they need this information and that they're going to use it for purposes that we think are roughly appropriate," said Coughlin.

Roberts says Charlottesville police purge the data about every 30 months. Albemarle County Police did not say how long they hold onto the information. The ACLU investigation found some departments across the country have retained it for years.

To see the full report by the ACLU, click HERE.

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