Police rethink license plate reader policy

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Following intense media scrutiny, city police officials twice adjusted policies governing the storage of data collected by automatic license plate readers, but those changes have failed to mollify privacy advocates.

The controversial devices automatically snap photos of license plates of vehicles parked on city streets and upload them — with location data — to a central database. Critics argue the practice invades the privacy of law-abiding residents and should be used only in police investigations.

When the Times reported on the issue in August, then-Lt. Mark Bergin said police could keep records on car locations up to four years. But officials told The Washington Post, when the daily newspaper investigated the issue a few months later, that the department stored the data for just two years.

And when Watchdog.org’s Kathryn Watson began a series on license plate readers in Alexandria, she learned officials had changed the policy again, only retaining the data for six months.

What happened? Deputy Chief Eddie Reyes said the first policy change was in response to a legal opinion by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) that any storage of license plate data not connected to an ongoing investigation was illegal under state law.

“We were one of the pioneers in this technology, and when we first adopted it, there were no standards and data retention was not an issue until the [Edward] Snowden story,” Reyes said, referencing the leak of information about NSA wiretapping and email monitoring. “We had set four years as our retention benchmark, but as the issue got publicity we thought it was appropriate, especially given the then-attorney general’s opinion — which has no impact on us — to reduce it to two years.”

The decision to switch to six months came out of discussions with other area police departments through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Reyes said. He stressed that all license plate data collected on, for example, January 1, is automatically erased from the database on July 1. Police technicians have tested the system by trying to pull records older than six months, and were unsuccessful, he said.

But Rebecca Glenberg, legal director at the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while a six-month database is an “improvement,” the practice remains illegal. Her organization has led the fight against the use of the devices.

“As you know, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s opinion said that automatic license plate readers could only be used for ongoing investigations where there is a predetermined need for the particular information,” Glenberg said. “[To] use [license plate data] in later investigations where the need is not established in advance, we agree with the [former] attorney general that that usage of the technology violates Virginia law and represents a substantial invasion of privacy.”

But Reyes said he fears further limiting the program would hamper officers’ abilities to investigate criminal activity.

“I’ve been an officer for almost 25 years, and anything less than six months would render this tool useless,” he said. “In order to make informed decisions on criminal investigations, we have to rely on big pictures, so anything that is only a couple of days old, the likelihood of it being beneficial in an investigation would be [very small].”

Glenberg said the ACLU would be fine with the use of the devices in active investigations or in the search for fugitives or stolen vehicles. Many police departments have been successful using the technology in those limited circumstances, she argued.

“Many law enforcement agencies use this technology only to compare license plate records to an active ‘hotlist’ and they find it beneficial to do that,” Glenberg said. “It’s just a matter of common sense that if you have a list of vehicles that law enforcement is on the look-out for, this technology can help them identify and locate those vehicles quickly and more efficiently than they could do without the technology.”

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