Reporter reveals extent of police surveillance on personal vehicle

By Kathryn Watson (File photo)

The police know exactly where my car has been — and when — during the past few months.

They could have the same information — or more — about you.

As a part of my series on the use of automatic license plate readers in Virginia, I wanted to find out what kind of information local police might have. By law, the only information I’m privileged to is my own.

Earlier this month I filed a public records request with the Alexandria Police Department. I’ve lived in the City of Alexandria for just two years, and my driving record — aside from the occasional parking ticket — is virtually spotless.

What I found, however, left me riveted.

In all, police captured 16 photos of my car — mostly at night — and recorded my license plate eight times on five dates — from October 2013 to as recently as April 1.

In January, a license plate reader (LPR) captured my plate twice while my car was parked in the lot of my apartment complex, according to latitude and longitude records.

Police also captured records of my car as I drove to Bible study on a typical Wednesday night in March. Still, others were captured in various spots around Old Town.

Per Alexandria Police Department policy, LPR-generated data may be kept on a computer for up to 30 days, pending upload to the LPR database. There, information can be kept for up to six months, according to Crystal Nosal, spokeswoman for the Alexandria Police Department. Police Chief Earl Cook ratcheted down that storage policy from four years to two, and then from two years to six months.

Alexandria police have 13 mobile systems, which are mounted only on police vehicles, Nosal said.

The state’s highest constitutional office already has said random collection and storage isn’t legal — but many local police departments in Virginia continue to do it.

Last year, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli concluded in an official opinion that “data collected in the continuous, passive manner that is not properly defined as ‘criminal intelligence information and not otherwise relating directly to law enforcement investigations and intelligence gathering respecting criminal activity … may not be lawfully collected through the use of LPR technology.”

The Alexandria commonwealth’s attorney and city attorney disagreed with Cuccinelli’s legal opinion. An attorney general’s opinion doesn’t bear the force of law. That’s left to the courts.

Police say ALPR technology helps police identify and catch criminals in ways other approaches simply can’t.

In January, Alexandria police, guided by ALPR-gathered data, were able to apprehend the suspected robber of a U.S. Postal Service office.

“LPR has been a successful tool in identifying leads in lots of cases from homicide to larceny. There is not one specific crime type,” Nosal said, mentioning that records can be used to find parking violators, too. “Recovering stolen automobiles and detecting parking violations are probably the best examples, however, we do not maintain statistical data on when LPR was used as a tool since it is merely a pointer system.”

That kind of success doesn’t happen every day. A study of Maryland’s use of the technology found that for every 1 million license plates scanned, only 47 were connected with serious crimes, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU of Virginia is encouraging people to file records requests with their own police departments.

The top-of-the-line ALPR technology allows local police departments like Alexandria’s to capture up to 1,800 license plates per minute, even of cars going up to 160 mph. Police can check license plate data to match one vehicle’s moves, or against things such as DMV records.

That’s exactly why civil rights advocates such as John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, argue the widespread collection and preservation of license plate data not only potentially violates search and seizure rights in the Fourth Amendment, but also makes people leery to exercise their First Amendment rights.

In 2008 and 2009, the Virginia State Police, which now regularly expunges records but still collects them, captured license plate data of people at political rallies for Sarah Palin and Barack Obama.

“It could be used against you later,” Whitehead said earlier this month.

After writing this, I’ll be sure to keep a closer eye on my surroundings. All it would take is a quick search of the records to find out where I live and where I typically travel.

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

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(19) Readers Comments

  1. How did you go about submitting your public records request with APD?

  2. 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.

    • Right. And will that same citizen or Police Officer be able to write down up to 1,800 license plates per minute?

    • Do you have the expectation of having your every move tracked by the police? The problem is not the license plate readers, but the collection and storage of data derived from the readers. This data storage allows police to track your movements without probable cause and without a warrant. This is why the Attorney General has concluded that this technology is being illegally used.

  3. First it was memory, then pencil, then pen, then keyboard, then camera, and now this. Obviously, as technology evolves, policing evolves. This is how things work. I agree with the last poster- you have no expectation of privacy on public roadways (or areas open to the public). I agree this is a huge tool of policing and will catch criminals/ prevent crime.

    • It’s also a tool that can easily be abused for personal, political or financial gain. Funny how most people never seem to recognize that until a government agency or employee does just that and it ends up in the news.

    • I do have an expectation of privacy on a public street. Also anonymity..

  4. I do have a reasonable expectation that my city, county, or state will not use my tax dollars to maintain a system which maintains records of my vehicle’s movements.

  5. The problem isn’t collecting the data, the problem is collecting the data, keeping it, and using it to profile people with no probable cause.

    If these hypothetical, notebook-and-camera-wielding cops wrote down everyone’s license plate number, kept the information in extensive records, and cross-referenced it to establish patterns — basically doing by hand the work a computer automates — that would be wrong, too.

    Basically, it’s not the collection, it’s the collation.

  6. The difference is all the difference: individualized suspicion. You would need a reason to spend hours sitting on a street writing down license plate numbers to justify the time investment to do so–that reason would be connected to a specific suspect for a specific crime, hence individualized suspicion.

    The concept of individualized suspicion was a direct result of “general warrants” that the Founding Fathers were aiming to protect people from when they wrote the 4th Amendment.

  7. It’s bizarre to me how people will jump all over themselves to justify police surveillance without any probable cause or reason behind it.

    Obviously, police departments CAN do this. WHY are they? And why are they allowed to do so without any sort of oversight, unless you go to the trouble of submitting an FOI requst?

    The same people who bend over backwards about the 2nd Amendment don’t have a problem with a basic violation of the 4th Amendment. It’s just so strange and inconsistent.

    It’s absolutely true we have no “expectation of privacy” when you’re on a public street. Completely true. And cameras at street lights can monitor iillegal activity – also true.

    But we shouldn’t be monitored everywhere, at all times – without some awareness of what’s going on. That is an un-Constitutuional search, as defined by the Constitition. At least according to my definition.

    I don’t really care. I obey the law so this won’t ever be an issue – but for people to kneejerk justify hidden surveillance is just baffling to me. Either the Constitition means something to you, or it doesn’t. You can’t pick and choose.

    • Yet, somehow, I don’t quite see you as one to defend the 2nd amendment with such vigor :)
      I still maintain that the attack on 2A is the more important fight.

      FYI, LPR is already being used for financial profit: nvls-lpr.com

      And LE has constitutionally unrestricted access to this national dbase.

      • Masterful goal post shifting. :/

  8. Guns don’t protect you from the government idiots. Try to fight the government with guns and you’re going to jail. You need lawyers and knowledge.

    • C’mon man: send lawyers, guns and money…

  9. Makes me really like the screw up at the DMV with my car. Run the plate it says “no data available”. And that’s it. No info as to what type of car, owners name, or address. 9 I’ve been stopped a couple times for it. Never ticketed. Car is insured, and has current tags. I’ve actuallybeen fighting with the DMV to fix it. But after reading this, fuck it. I’d like to keep it no data found.

  10. Sorry about the bad grammar folks. Posting via phone with a cracked screen.

  11. the county of San Diego has apparently taken 36 million LPR images since 2010. There’s less than 3 million people in the county. The first step in everyone’s best interest is to define the rules on retention of this data.
    If you think “hey no big deal, I’m not doing anything wrong”.

    Think about this: What if you received a speeding ticket in the mail based solely upon the timestamp of your geolocation data? Perhaps you paid a toll at a bridge and then paid a meter to park at your destination? A few days later, $324 ticket arrives by USPS informing you of your infraction…..”It was determined that you were in violation of your state’s vehicle code for excessive speed” since you averaged 76MPH , thank you and pay at the website for an additional service fee……. of $5.95

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