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Wed Dec 28, 2016, 04:37 PM

Are the police tracking you? Push to restrict license plate readers heads to Va. Supreme Court

Are the police tracking you? Push to restrict license plate readers heads to Va. Supreme Court

By Tom Jackman

@TomJackmanWP
tom.jackman@washpost.com

December 23

The police use of automatic license plate readers, photographing hundreds of license plates per minute and capturing the exact time and place of the photo, has become routine in law enforcement and is credited with helping to solve all manner of crimes, find missing persons and locate stolen autos. But the vast data those readers generate continues to alarm civil liberties advocates, troubled by the possibility of police tracking people’s movements, and now a legal challenge is headed to Virginia’s Supreme Court to determine whether the police can keep the information indefinitely — or not at all.

Different states, and individual police departments, have varying policies on how long the police can keep the data from their license plate readers. In Colorado, the data can be kept for three years. In New Hampshire, state law says the readers can’t be used at all. In Virginia, where there is no restriction, the American Civil Liberties Union entered the swirling controversy over data retention by suing the Fairfax County Police Department, seeking an injunction to prevent them from keeping the license data they currently maintain for a year. Last month, a Fairfax judge threw the case out, ruling that a license plate is not “personal information,” in what appears to be the first court ruling nationwide on that issue, important in states which prohibit government from keeping citizens’ personal information.

The ACLU is appealing that ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court. If the state high court reviews the case, its ruling would likely set a precedent in Virginia — either allowing police departments to maintain license data indefinitely, or requiring them to purge it almost immediately — that could launch a similar legal shift in state laws and police departments nationwide.

The Virginia case has attracted attention from national groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Vigilant Solutions, one of the largest manufacturers of LPRs, and both filed amicus briefs in the case. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said that some readers can capture 1,800 plate numbers per minute, and that one Northern California law enforcement agency had collected data on 3.2 million plates in just three months. Of those 3.2 million, only 720 were linked to crime, and the other 99.09 percent were not, the foundation said.

The opinion is in the article.

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