License plate scanners are growing increasingly popular. It’s due in part to this growing use of the small cameras, that privacy rights groups are putting their feet down, demanding accountability and better regulations on the scanners to ensure the rights of innocent people are not taken for granted. To this end, the ACLU of Southern California has filed a lawsuit against both the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
As the LA Times reports, these scanners are typically used to identify stolen vehicles and those registered to “known fugitives”. They are able to do this by taking photos of passing cars in rapid succession and comparing these license plate “scans” to a database of vehicles. If there is a “hit”, the officer is alerted and can make a stop.
The problem is that for every “hit” there are thousands of license plates scanned and stored when there was no violation. And because the scans track location, it means the location of your vehicle on a specific date and time isn’t only known to local law enforcement, it’s kept, and guarded tightly.
The ACLU filed a request for these records and both law enforcement agencies declined. That’s where the lawsuit came in.
“This technology has led to police maintaining data on every resident of Los Angeles that they manage to scan…even law-abiding residents, and that’s a real concern,” said Peter Bibring of the ACLU.
Police officials say the scans are important investigative tools and keeping them indefinitely could help solve crimes down the road. The ACLU argues that those scans not immediately tied to a crime should be dumped.
The ACLU has previously asked both agencies to rewrite their policies regarding the scanners. Neither has complied. They see it as an enforcement tool, while many others see it as a tool of privacy violation and a blanket, and constitutionally questionable, approach to solving crimes.
The issue of license plate scanners isn’t unique to Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, the LAPD and the LA County Sheriff’s Department served as the testing ground for many smaller law enforcement agencies across the state, who modeled their programs after those being used in the big city.
The scanners are used by an estimated 71% of law enforcement agencies being used across the country. And in each of these locales, there are those who are seriously concerned about their use and the lack of controls on them.