States enact, pursue new rules on using license plate readers

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 8/15/2017

The practice of tracking movements of vehicles – and sometimes drivers – through automatic license plate readers has the attention of state officials around the country. The devices are mounted on police vehicles, road signs or traffic lights.

High-tech cameras to capture the date, time and location that scanned vehicles passed are used in some capacity by about 600 local and state police departments and other state and federal agencies, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Private business, such as repossession companies and vehicle insurance companies, also use the technology, which can capture about 1,800 images per minute.

Critics say use of the scanners amounts to warrantless searches. Supporters say the scanners are not intended to infringe on peoples’ privacy.

To date, at least 14 states have enacted rules relating to the use of automatic license plate readers. Among the group, there are six states to place restrictions on government or law enforcement use of the technology. Eight states limit how long data can be kept, and four states specify that data is exempt under public records laws.

Montana is the most recent state to be added to the growing list. Gov. Steve Bullock signed into law a bill to limit the use of license plate readers.

Specifically, state personnel are prohibited from using the devices on public roadways. Law enforcement agencies in Big Sky Country will be allowed to use the readers for identifying stolen vehicles, locating vehicles involved in “major” crimes, locating missing persons, and “case-specific investigative surveillance.”

Law enforcement is prohibited to keep data collected for more than 90 days without a request for extension or warrant.

Previously HB149, the new law takes effect Oct. 1.

A Rhode Island bill still active at the statehouse would permit the use of automatic license plate readers for vehicle insurance purposes.

Similar to an Oklahoma law, the Rhode Island bill calls for allowing a private company to set up and operate a highway surveillance system to issue tickets to uninsured commercial drivers and motorists.

Fines would be capped at $120.

The state would split the profits from the ticket system with the private company running the program. According to estimates, the state and the contractor would get $15 million annually.

Cameras could not be used to collect tolls. In addition, cameras would be prohibited on police vehicles.

House lawmakers have already approved the bill. The bill, H5531, could come up for consideration in the Senate as soon as late September.

In New Jersey, an effort is underway to prohibit unauthorized use of data collected via ALPRs.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Paterson, has said that while the data can help law enforcement agencies quickly locate and apprehend criminals, “the collection of massive amounts of information regarding people’s whereabouts raises privacy concerns.”

His bill, A1880, would authorize punishment of up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000 for employees of law enforcement agencies that use or access collected data without authorization.

Agencies using license plate readers would be required to submit an annual report to the attorney general. County prosecutors or the attorney general would also be responsible to do an annual audit of each agency’s use of the devices.

Wimberly’s bill has advanced from the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee. The Senate version, S3415, is in the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.

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