Who's reading your license plate? Five states pursue rules on plate readers

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Thursday, January 02, 2014

Driving undetected is not an option in much of the country because of the use of automated license plate scanners. Officials in statehouses around the country are pursuing guidelines on the use of the technology by law enforcement.

License plate readers, or LPRs, can be mounted on patrol cars or alongside roadsides and bridges. High-speed cameras and software are used to capture images of license plates. Plate numbers are scanned and cross-checked with numbers included on a “hotlist.” If a plate hits, officers are alerted and can pursue or pull over the vehicle.

Law enforcement used the technology in April 2013 to help track down the Boston Marathon bombers in Watertown, Mass. In fact, cameras to capture the date, time and location that scanned vehicles passed are used in some capacity in 40 states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Retention periods range from 48 hours by the Minnesota State Patrol to five years in Delaware and New Jersey.

Critics of the technology don’t object to law enforcement using license plate readers to capture criminals. However, they are concerned about unwarranted stops of innocent people and how long police hold onto the plate numbers of law-abiding citizens.

New Hampshire law forbids the use of the technology. However, the state’s House is scheduled to consider a bill next week that would authorize the use of automated license plate scanners.

The bill would allow law enforcement agencies to use the scanners to collect plate numbers and run them through a database of crimes and individuals. Acceptable uses of LPRs would include commercial trucking violations, tracking stolen vehicles, and tracking people suspected of criminal or terrorist acts.

Data from plates that aren’t included on any lists would be required to be purged after three minutes.

In Michigan, concerns over personal privacy spurred Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, to pursue limits on use of the technology.

Singh said the U.S. Constitution demands a certain level of privacy for all people, but he said people must remain diligent in enforcing the right.

“Broad-stroke electronic monitoring methods such as license plate readers raise concerns, and we need to act proactively to ensure the right balance between effective law enforcement and a person’s privacy is maintained,” Singh said in a recent news release.

His bill would prohibit LPRs from recording pictures of drivers, require that local department-level policies govern their use, and allow the attorney general’s office to ban use of the technology at agencies found in violation.

The bill would also mandate that license plate records collected by the readers must be deleted from data systems within 48 hours after they were collected. An exception would be made when the record is linked to criminal activity.

Similar to the New Hampshire bill, the technology would be authorized to aid with enforcing commercial trucking rules.

A Massachusetts lawmaker also wants to require records of innocent drivers to be deleted after 48 hours.

Rep. Jonathan Hecht, D-Watertown, posted on social media following a hearing on his bill that it would ensure that the technology “remains a tool for reading license plates for legitimate purposes, not tracking innocent motorists.”

One Missouri state lawmaker wants to see a stricter time limit put in place in the Show-Me State. Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit, has filed a bill that would require all irrelevant data to be purged after 30 days.

Another effort to rein in use of the technology is underway in Wisconsin. Multiple state lawmakers are pushing a bill that would allow police to use cameras only during a crime investigation.

All data would be required to be destroyed within 48 hours unless the information is needed for criminal investigations. In addition, stored information couldn’t be shared with non-governmental entities.

Rep. David Craig, R-Vernon, said that technology advances are putting civil liberties at risk. Without enacting limits, he said it can lead to very bad outcomes for constitutional rights.

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