Citing Privacy Rights, Groups Demand Details on License Plate Readers

By Tami Abdollah
|  Monday, May 6, 2013  |  Updated 11:56 PM PDT
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The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a writ against Los Angeles city, county and its law enforcement departments after waiting more than eight months for a complete response to public records requests. Beverly White reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on May 6, 2013.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a writ against Los Angeles city, county and its law enforcement departments after waiting more than eight months for a complete response to public records requests. Beverly White reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on May 6, 2013.

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Two privacy rights groups questioning law enforcement's use of automated license plate readers asked a judge Monday to order the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to provide more details on how they use the technology.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a writ against the city, county and its law enforcement departments after waiting more than eight months for a complete response to public records requests.

The groups are seeking one week of data collected by the readers, which are usually mounted on police cars and scan thousands of license plates in an officer's shift. The readers – which collect the license plate numbers, the time, date, GPS location and a photo – alert law enforcement to stolen and wanted vehicles.

“If you're not wanted for anything, it doesn't do anything,” said Los Angeles County sheriff's Sgt. John Gaw, who works in the advanced surveillance and protection unit. “It does collect that information, it does put it in our database, and we're able to go back and review that information if you're wanted in some type of criminal investigation.”

Privacy advocates are worried that about the growth of such law enforcement databases often outside the public's eye and with little public oversight or information. They say the readers create a database that essentially tracks movements of innocent people, often long before any crime has been committed. But officials contend that the readers are a valuable piece of technology that helps solve crimes and simply speeds up and automates what would have been a slow, painstaking manual process only a few years ago.

Representatives of the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department said they do not comment on ongoing litigation.

In the LAPD's response to the public records request, the department said the records could not be provided because they contain “official information,” it and referred to the records as “investigatory files” that need to remain confidential.

The Sheriff's Department also wrote in its response that it would not provide the data out of a concern for protecting ``investigatory or security files.''

“The public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record,'' the department wrote.

Roughly 28 jurisdictions within Los Angeles County use the license plate readers, and law enforcement officers in each share access to their databases and can query others for information, Gaw said.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has about 180 million license plate scans in its database, many of which may be duplicates, since the program's start in late 2007, Gaw said. As of now, 77 patrol cars have a reader system _ which costs roughly $23,000 each _ out of 2,500 cars in the county. There are also five areas covered by readers affixed to stationary structures such as traffic poles.

The LAPD has more than 120 patrol cars with readers and has been using the readers for several years, said Lt. Andrew Neiman. The department plans to continue to add more readers to new patrol cars.

Investigators can check the whereabouts of a vehicle after a crime has occurred to determine where it has been, essentially mapping its location over time. They can also identify witnesses in the area where a crime has occurred.

The readers have helped law enforcement officers solve crimes. In one case a couple years ago, Gaw said, a woman went missing but her vehicle had been scanned by an LAPD cruiser, which located her car at an ex-boyfriend's house. She had been killed, her body had been left in the car, and it was about to be dumped.

“How often do you see a police car and how many times do you pass that patrol car ... maybe once every two weeks?” Gaw said. “The way I look at it, we have all given up a lot of our own privacy with just the simple phones we carry.”

The automated reader can scan more than 14,000 license plates during an officer's shift, reading a plate coming in the opposite direction at up to 160 mph even in poor lighting, according to a Sheriff's Department PowerPoint presentation.

Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said the legal action is an effort to determine how many plates are being collected in a week and also whether the databases, likely taken from areas with higher policing rates, may be more skewed to blacks and Latinos.

Though there is a limit to how long the departments retain the information, primarily due to storage constraints, there are no clear legal guidelines limiting how the information is used, Bibring said.

“Our concern is they've got this technology that collects information on law abiding residents, and they're saying they can't disclose even a narrow slice of it,” Bibring said. But providing such information “would help the public gauge how intrusive it is.”

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