ACLU campaign against police license plate readers rolls on

By Kathryn Watson (File Photo)

They’re watching you. At least, they sure could be.

Local police departments in Northern Virginia are still randomly scanning license plate data — including the date, time and exact location where that license pate was located — and storing that data for years. That despite former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) telling state police last year in a strongly worded opinion that it was illegal to do so apart from a specific criminal investigation.

Why does that matter?

“The more information they get, the more they can tell about who you are, what you do, what doctor you see, what psychologist you see, where your car is parked,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting to eliminate the random collection and storage practice.

Positioned on many police cars and even on stationary fixtures, automatic license plate readers have the ability to scan thousands of license plates within their field of view at a time. Those plate numbers are sent to a massive database, where they can be matched against DMV and other records.

Those records can be used to match a license plate found in one location with the same license plate found parked at a gun shop, for example, said Gastañaga.
What is an irate person to do? The ACLU urges residents to hound their local police departments with public records requests. Residents retain the right to see all their personal data the government has on hand.

One of the ACLU board members submitted a public records request with the Alexandria Police Department.

“One of the places where they took the picture was in the [home] driveway,” Gastañaga said.

Police are simply going too far, she said.

“The police will say this is wonderful because it helps us get the bad guys,” Gastañaga said. “My response is you could walk down my street and search every house on my street.”

The ACLU is trying to get as many people on board to file records requests as possible.

“In order to bring an action to get somebody to stop doing something, you have to have somebody who is harmed by the action,” Gastañaga said. “We’re obviously looking for people to have information from their own local governments and make that information available to us so we can examine what’s happened.”

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org, and can be reached at kwatson@watchdog.org.

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(3) Readers Comments

  1. Rather than a few random cameras, I think a more grave threat to the people of the Commonwealth is the ongoing attack on our 2nd amendment rights. Surely the ACLU is involved in protection of the Bill of Rights in its entirety?

  2. I don’t understand the difference between officers manually writing down plate numbers or their cameras doing it for them. There is no right to privacy if your car is on public or in plain view from the public property. This is true for everything, the police can watch your house from public property and document what they see.

    Ms. Gastanaga makes herself sound like a fool. I don’t think license plate readers can tell the name of your doctor. The ACLU should pick and choose better battles. The plate readers seem to be a great tool.

    • Hagerman is right. Any citizen or Police Officer can walk along a public street with a notebook and a camera, and document the date, time, place, of a vehicle, and the make, model and license plate number. You don’t have an expectation to privacy when you’re on a public street.

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