Los Angeles

Civil Liberties Groups Appeal for LA Authorities' Collected License Plate Data

The groups are seeking license plate information collected by police during the last week of Ramadan in 2012

Two civil liberties groups this week filed an appeal to try and force LA authorities to release data they’ve collected from automated license plate readers.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation are seeking license plate information collected during the last week of Ramadan in August 2012, to learn how Los Angeles police are tracking citizens’ locations, said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney for EFF, a privacy rights group.

"In a city like LA, where people are reliant on cars, you can learn a lot about people," Lynch said. "We’re ultimately trying to show what a major privacy invasion these license plate data could be."

Automatic license plate readers, mounted on police cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute. Authorities capture the license plate numbers, locations, times, dates and photos of vehicles and keep that information for years.

LA city and county authorities collect data on about three million people each week, Lynch said.

Police say the information is useful for catching criminals and harmless for those who haven’t committed any crimes.

"If you're not wanted for anything, it doesn't do anything," LA County Sheriff's Sgt. John Gaw said in 2013. "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."

The ACLU and EFF sued the city and county of Los Angeles in May 2013 for a week’s worth of data after several public records requests were ignored by officials, Lynch said.

The groups have requested that a California appellate court judge consider the case.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge in August ruled in favor of LA county and city authorities’ decision to withhold the data. The Los Angeles Police Department and LA County Sheriff’s Department have cited exemptions under the California Public Records Act concerning investigatory records, according to a statement from LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s office in court records.

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