Police license-plate database comes under fire


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.



  1. Now I know how it was that Rich Baier seemed to know so much about the car I drove. I have been very active in the issue of through traffic being rerouted from Monroe Avenue through two old, narrow residential streets (East Howell and East Custis). We have had a number of meetings with Council members and City staff. At one of the most recent meetings, Rich Baier (head of TES) made quite a point (actually three points) when talking to me, referring not only to the make of my car but the color as well. As I know that he has never seen me in this particular car, I made note of just how unnerving it was that he knew so much about me. Clearly he had been provided with that information, whether formally or informally, I do not know. I had the sense that I was being told that I was being watched. As a number of us on East Howell and East Custis are pretty active on this traffic issue, I am curious as to how many of our cars have been noted. As the car he referred to was totaled in an accident, I am waiting to see if he now knows what I am currently driving. A bit creepy I think. Do they make note of the cars of all citizens who are active in civic affairs?

  2. Leslie,

    If all Mr. Baier said was the make and color of your vehicle, he probably isn’t getting the information from some database; rather, he probably just saw you in it or near, either at home or somewhere in the city. I think you need to do a better job of proving that he never saw you in the car. One blanket statement “As I know that has never seen me in this particular car” sounds like a little general and needs a bit more backing behind it.