Two advocacy groups suing the Los Angeles Police Department and the LA County Sheriff’s Department for access to data from automated license plate readers have won a chance to argue before the California Supreme Court.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation took the two departments to court in 2013 in an attempt to get one week’s worth of data that shows how officers use the technology.
The Redlands Police Department has an automated license plate reader mounted to a patrol car, but isn’t involved in the suit.
The seven-judge panel receives thousands of petitions for review each year, but grants less than five percent, according to the California Supreme Court.
“It really sets a dangerous precedent for any law enforcement records that are gathered using any sort of automated technology,” said Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney for EFF. “About 99 percent of the time, license plate records that are collected by law enforcement are never tied to any criminal investigation, or even a vehicle registration issue.”
The LAPD and LASD store the locations of approximately 3 million cars scanned each week for a minimum of two years, allowing officers to identify the past whereabouts of anyone listed in the database contributed to by and shared with 26 other agencies, according to court documents. One camera collects up to 14,000 cars during a single shift, which it then scans against a “hot list” of stolen and wanted vehicles.
An analysis by Ars Technica of 4.6 million license plate collected by the Oakland Police Department over four years found that only 0.16 percent registered as “hits.” The data allowed the site to find a council member’s block using nothing but the database and his license plate, according to the technology news site.
The ACLU and EFF argue that by classifying the data as exempt, the court increases the scope of that exemption to cover other technologies, including body cameras, eliminating the added transparency such devices purport to give.
“The (appeals) court also failed to address the fundamental difference between mass surveillance technology in ALPRs and traditional human policing, and instead mechanically applied old case law addressing targeted investigation by human officers to ALPR technology,” they wrote in their petition. “The court’s opinion rests on the presumption that there is no difference between an officer manually checking a single license plate and high-tech surveillance equipment automatically cataloging the locations of millions of vehicles in Los Angeles every week.”
Several groups, including Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the California Newspaper Publishers Association, sent letters to the Supreme Court in support of the ACLU and EFF.
Attorneys for the law enforcement agencies say that the license plate data is generated to “investigate crimes involving motor vehicles, child abduction and murder,” according to their petition for the California Supreme Court to deny the case. The agencies cited a 2013 murder case where the scans helped police determine that the murder took place a day before and 50 miles away from where the body was found.
“The fact that ALPR data include plate scans of non-suspect vehicles, and the fact that the county and city retain ALPR data after the investigations are concluded, does not change the fact that the ALPR data are records of investigations,” they wrote.
The police worry that releasing the data would lead to future abuse, with people requesting it to stalk others or to track patrol patterns.
“The evidence shows that the ALPR data is used by the county and the city to investigate crime,” the attorneys wrote. “There are standards for its use, consequences for its misuse and potentially devastating consequences to both law enforcement efforts and the privacy of the driving public if the data is disclosed.”
The EFF and the ACLU, however, say that the release of information to them would not constitute an opening of the flood gates. The Supreme Court will only hear the merits of the investigatory exemption for all of the data, leaving departments able to withhold information that tied to a specific investigation, or that would put the public at risk, Lynch said.
The two groups previously said they would take the data with the license plates randomized or redacted, as their goal is to see how the departments use the technology, not to track specific movements. The ACLU and EFF requested the data to ascertain what areas and groups police might target with the technology, to see if the program violates people’s constitutional rights.
Staff writer Sandra Emerson contributed to this report.