Police license-plate database comes under fire

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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Lt. Mark Bergin knows first-hand how databases compiled by electronic license-plate readers can help find suspects quickly.

“I remember I was working on the street when it happened. We received a lookout from another jurisdiction on a suspect involved in a violent domestic, where he basically beat the crap out of some relative,” said Bergin, who doubles as a spokesman for the Alexandria Police Department. “We had the description and the license plate, so we put that into our system. … One of our sergeants searched to see where we had seen that car lately, and we located the vehicle and subsequently located the guy.”

But a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union provoked greater scrutiny on the practice in which law enforcement agencies keep vast databases that effectively track where motorists park.

Bergin said the department added the devices to police vehicles in 2008 and started a database of license plates in 2011. The department keeps the information for four years and then will automatically overwrite the old records with new data.

In the ACLU report, “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Track Americans’ Movements,” the organization argues that tracking a resident’s movements constitutes an invasion of privacy, even if there are a few justifiable uses.

“While it is legitimate to use license-plate readers to identify those who are alleged to have committed crimes, the overwhelming majority of people whose movements are monitored and recorded by these machines are innocent, and there is no reason for the police to be keeping records on their movements,” stated the report, which was released on the heels of unrelated domestic spying operations run by the federal government. “Ordinary people going about their daily lives have every right to expect that their movements will not be logged into a massive government database.”

Bergin described license-plate readers and databases as simply law enforcement tools. Logging the whereabouts of private vehicles could hypothetically be done — and done legally — without the devices, he said.

“The concern is very different from the NSA data-mining brought to light in the case of Edward Snowden. There’s probably a vast privacy difference between written communications transmitted electronically and the information available visually out on the street at any time,” Bergin said. “Everything [a license-plate reader] gathers could also be gathered by an attentive person with a pen and paper.”

And putting in safeguards to prevent police from actively monitoring “law-abiding citizens” with the readers would prove difficult, Bergin said.

“There probably wouldn’t be a mechanism to limit our searches to a case that’s already opened or a warrant that’s already been obtained, especially if the charges are from outside of Alexandria,” he said.

Nick Beltrante, executive director of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, understands the use of a license-plate database, but the retired Washington investigator called it an invasion of privacy.

“I’m not sure what more I can say: It’s a violation of my civil rights,” Beltrante said. “Being a noncriminal, there’s no need for my tag number to be in that databank.”

Bergin said that since 2008, the department’s license-plate reader program has returned 679 alarms, which refers to any hit by a reader on a stolen vehicle, dead or expired tags or registration, or other infractions. Within the last year, the department has recovered nine stolen vehicles using the devices, and in 2010, an officer single-handedly recovered 29 stolen cars utilizing license-plate readers.