San Diego

Public Could Learn More About Information Gathered by Police License Plate Scanners

State’s highest court urges release of some data gathered by automated scanners

The California Supreme Court says you have a right to know more about the information police obtain with automated license plate scanners.

The ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a public records request for a week’s worth of data gathered by the Los Angeles police and sheriff’s departments.

A trial court ruled law enforcement did not have to release that data because it’s a record relating to a police investigation. An appeals court confirmed that ruling, but in a unanimous decision issued Thursday, the state Supreme Court said the information is not exempt from public disclosure.

While Supreme Court justices acknowledged law enforcement can withhold “raw data” collected by the license plate scanners, the justices sent the case back to the lower court, telling the trial judge to consider ways to edit the data to protect personal information, and then make it public.

Law enforcement agencies nationwide, including in San Diego, use license plate readers attached to patrol cars and objects such as traffic signals. The devices indiscriminately capture images of license plates that come into view. The information is passed through databases to instantly check whether the car or driver has been linked to a crime. The scanners also collect information on law-abiding citizens.

According to law enforcement, the scans are useful in tracking stolen vehicles, missing children and people wanted by police. For instance, authorities chasing a suspect in a fatal shooting at Delta State University in Mississippi in 2015 used an automatic license plate reader to track that suspect as he traveled across state lines.

Responding to today’s Supreme Court ruling, Jennifer Lehman, an attorney for Los Angeles County, expressed concern that “even making the information anonymous could pose unique and unintended problems." She said the county will raise those concerns when the case is heard again by the lower court.

ACLU attorney Peter Bibring disagreed.

He and other privacy advocates argue license plate readers routinely capture innocent drivers, recording information about their locations that could be used to track their habits and whereabouts.

 "The court recognized that technology does make a difference and the exemption for police investigations wasn't intended to encompass the kind of indiscriminate collection of information that license plate readers make possible today," Bibring said.

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