The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU-SC) today jointly filed suit against two Los Angeles-area law-enforcement agencies over their failure to produce records related to the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs).
Mounted on squad cars and telephone poles, these sophisticated camera systems read license plates and record the time, date, and location a particular car was encountered. EFF and the ACLU-SC filed requests with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department under the California Public Records Act seeking documents relating to policy and training on ALPRs, as well as a week’s worth of ALPR data collected by the agencies in 2012. While the sheriff and police departments produced some materials, they failed to provide documents related to sharing information with other agencies, and neither agency has produced the data collected during the one-week period.
“Location-based information like license plate data can be very revealing,” said EFF Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. “By matching your car to a particular time, date and location — and building a database of that information over time — law enforcement can learn where you work and live, what doctor you go to, which religious services you attend, and who your friends are. The public needs access to data the police actually have collected to be able to make informed decisions about how ALPR systems can and can’t be used.”
ALPRs can record up to 14,000 plates during a single shift. According to a June 2012 story in LA Weekly, the sheriff and police departments conduct, on average, approximately 22 scans for every one of the 7 million vehicles registered in Los Angeles County. As of June, the departments reportedly logged more than 160 million data points. While the police can use this technology to match license plates against databases to find stolen or wanted cars, the systems currently record and store information on every car, even where there’s no reason to think a car is connected to any crime.
“Police can and should treat location information from ALPRs like other sensitive information. They should retain it no longer than necessary to determine if it might be relevant to a crime and get a warrant if they need to keep it any longer,” ACLU-SC Senior Staff Attorney Peter Bibring says. “They should limit who can access it, who they can share it with and create an oversight system to make sure the limits are followed.”
The complaint was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court. EFF and the ACLU have asked a judge to issue a writ directing the agencies to hand over all requested records and award appropriate legal fees.
For the full complaint: