ACLU releases report on license plate scanner

Jul. 19, 2013 @ 04:30 PM

The American Civil Liberties Union feels that many police departments are keeping innocent people’s information stored for years or even indefinitely, regardless of whether there is any suspicion of a crime, according to a report that it released Wednesday. Last summer, the group sent public records requests to law enforcement agencies throughout the state and found at least 11 use the automatic license plate readers. One of those agencies is the High Point Police Department.
“Essentially, the ALPR (automated license plate readers) capture the license plates of everyone who drives by and the purpose is to run them against databases to see if the vehicle is involved in wrong doing,” said Sarah Preston, policy director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “The interesting thing about High Point is the low match rate. This means that a huge number of people who have not done anything wrong are having their location information captured, recorded and stored by the government and there is no regulation requiring them to get rid of that information.”
Preston said that if they capture enough information, then the police start to have a map of where everyone is going.
“They start to know what doctors, church or organizations you go to. The government would have the capacity to look back over a period of time and figure out where every driver has been,” Preston said.
Police Chief Marty Sumner said that his department has a policy in place to regulate and get rid of the information that is being stored.
“When they made an open records request two months ago, we gave them (ACLU) a copy of our general order and our very strict six-page policy that was implemented before we deployed them,” Sumner said. “It says who and what they are looking for; we only retain that data for one year and its audited.”
The automatic license plate readers use cameras mounted on patrol cars, or objects like road signs and bridges, that photograph every license plate they encounter. Software is used to read the number and add a time and location stamp, then record the information in a database. Police are alerted when numbers match lists containing license numbers of interest, such as stolen cars.
“Automatic license plate readers allow the government to record the movement of countless citizens and then store that information in massive databases,” Preston said. “We don’t object to the use of these scanners to flag cars that are stolen or used in a crime, but our findings show a dire need to enact safeguards that will protect the privacy of residents and ensure that this technology does not lead to the routine tracking of innocent people who have done nothing wrong.”
According to the ACLU report, High Point reported 70,289 plate reads between August 2011 and June 2012 with only .08 percent resulting in hits. Sumner said that is because the department only has two scanners due to them being expensive.
“Those cars are not driven 24 hours a day. I may have a car on patrol today and it may not be driven again for a few days. It spends a limited time out there. The license plate reader sees more than the officer does. We do not come across stolen cars all day long,” Sumner said. “It is a tool that helps us notice when we are near a stolen a car but we didn’t purchase them to solve a stolen car problem.”
Currently, there are no laws that require the regulation of law enforcement’s use of ALPRs in the state. Senate bill 623, a bill strongly supported by ACLU-NC, would place safeguards on ALPR use by requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using or sharing the data retrieved and placing time limits on how long the data can be stored.
“Our biggest concern is that there is no state standard on how long the information can used,” Preston said. “We want them to delete the information about the innocent drivers.”
Other law enforcement agencies that use the system were Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, Durham County Tax Department, Fayetteville Police Department, Greenville Police Department, Jacksonville Police Department, Raleigh Police Department, Washington Police Department, Wilmington Police Department, Wilson County Sheriff’s Office and Wrightsville Beach Police Department.

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