Watchdog: Accountability

How many times have the cops photographed your license plate?

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Virginia,Watchdog,Watchdog Blog,Surveillance,Accountability,Auto Industry,Technology

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Local police know exactly where my car has been — and when — during the past few months. They could have the same information — or more — about you.

As a part of my series on the use of automatic license plate readers in Virginia, I wanted to find out what kind of information local police might have. By law, the only information I'm privileged to is my own.

Last week, I filed a public records request with the Alexandria Police Department. I’ve lived in the lovely city of Alexandria for just two years, and my driving record — aside from the occasional parking ticket — is virtually spotless.

What I found, however, left me riveted. In all, police captured 16 photos of my car — mostly at night — and recorded my license plate eight times on five dates — from October 2013 to as recently as April 1.

In January, a license plate reader captured my plate twice while my car was parked in the lot of my apartment complex, according to latitude and longitude records.

Police also captured records of my car as I drove to a Bible study on a typical Wednesday night in March. Still others were captured in various spots around Old Town Alexandria.

Per Alexandria Police Department policy, LPR-generated data may be kept on a computer for up to 30 days, pending upload to the LPR database.

There, information can be kept for up to six months, according to Crystal Nosal, commander and senior public information officer for the Alexandria Police Department.

Police Chief Earl Cook ratcheted down that storage policy from four years to two, and then from two years to six months.

Alexandria police have 13 mobile systems, which are mounted only on police vehicles, Nosal said.

The state’s highest constitutional officer has already said random collection and storage isn’t legal — but many local police departments in Virginia continue to do it.

Last year, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli concluded in an official opinion that “data collected in the continuous, passive manner that is not properly defined as ‘criminal intelligence information' and not otherwise relating directly to law enforcement investigations and intelligence gathering respecting criminal activity … may not be lawfully collected through the use of LPR technology.”

The Alexandria commonwealth’s attorney and city attorney disagreed with Cuccinelli’s legal opinion. An attorney general’s opinion doesn’t bear the force of law in Virginia. That’s left to the courts.

Police say LPR technology helps police identify and catch criminals in ways other approaches simply can’t.

In January, Alexandria police, guided by LPR-gathered data, were able to apprehend the suspected robber of a U.S. Postal Service office.

“LPR has been a successful tool in identifying leads in lots of cases from homicide to larceny. There is not one specific crime type,” Nosal said, mentioning that records can be used to find parking violators, too.

“Recovering stolen automobiles and detecting parking violations are probably the best examples; however, we do not maintain statistical data on when LPR was used as a tool since it is merely a pointer system.”

That kind of success doesn’t happen every day. A study of Maryland’s use of the technology found that for every 1 million license plates scanned, only 47 were connected with serious crimes, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU of Virginia is encouraging people to file records requests with their own police departments.

The top-of-the-line LPR technology allows local police departments like Alexandria’s to capture up to 1,800 license plates per minute, even of cars going up to 160 mph.

Police can then check license plate data to match one vehicle’s moves, or against things such as DMV records.

That's exactly why civil rights advocates such as John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, said the widespread collection and preservation of license plate data not only potentially violates search and seizure rights in the Fourth Amendment, but it also makes people leery to exercise their First Amendment rights.

In 2008 and 2009, the Virginia State Police, which now regularly expunges records but still collects them, captured license plate data of people at political rallies for Sarah Palin and President Obama.

“It could be used against you later,” Whitehead said earlier this month.

After writing this, I'll be sure to keep a closer eye on my surroundings. All it would take is a quick search of the records to find out where I live and where I typically travel.

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org, which a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.
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