Are License Plate Scanners Capturing Too Much?

License plate scanners in California may be capturing much more than just license plates.

One California man backed by the ACLU submitted a public records request to obtain the images from the mounted license plate reader camera used by the San Leandro Police Department. He knew about the scanners but didn’t know the extent of the photographs.

“I didn't realize that in addition to capturing my license plate of my car, they were also capturing an image of the surroundings of the car," Mike Katz-Lacabe said in a Skype interview. 

Katz-Lacabe shared one of the images that made him concerned.

Katz-Lacabe was shocked when he got the photos from the northern California police department. He said the photos showed more than he had imagined.

“Enough for them to distinguish me and my daughters getting out of my car,” Katz-Lacabe said. “But there's also another image of where I'm next to the car and it's very obviously me.”

The ACLU, an organization which has raised questions about the license plate scanners, featured Katz-Lacabe’s story, calling the photos, “worrisome.”

On a blog post on their website, the ACLU said the Drug Enforcement Administration has been using the license plate reader programs to photograph the drivers and their passengers, according to newly obtained records by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request.

One document obtained by the ACLU from 2009 said the program could provide “the requester” with images that might include the license plate number as well as photos of visible vehicle occupants.

Katz-Lacabe’s story begs the question, is this happening in San Diego?

Coronado Police Commander Jesus Ochoa says the four cameras on top of their patrol cars are angled down, in the direction of vehicle license plates.

But, he said, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, either.

"Are there other concerns that you get your pictures taken getting in and out of the car, yeah,” Ochoa said. “I'm sure that happens but there's really, if you consider how many pictures a unit like this takes, versus what we're looking for, we don't have enough time to identify where everybody is at any one point."

Commander Ochoa said the scanners are meant to take pictures of license plates and they often find stolen cars.

The San Diego Sheriff's Department uses license plate readers, though spokeswoman Jan Caldwell said the license plate readers are not designed to photograph people.

"The camera has to be angled downward in order to capture license plates," Caldwell said in a statement to NBC 7. "Now, that's not to say that it happens occasionally, but it is not the intention. The cameras are designed to capture the reflective properties of the plates, which is a reason we also obtain so many photographs of street signs – because of their reflective nature."

Contact Us