EFF, ACLU Ask California Supreme Court to Order Release of Los Angeles License Plate Reader Data

San Francisco, California (EFF) ­—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) are urging California’s highest court to rule that license plate data, collected indiscriminately on millions of drivers by police across the state, are not investigative records and should be made available to the public.

Image Source: Eli Christman, Flickr, Creative Commons Text Speak License Plate

Image Source: Eli Christman, Flickr, Creative Commons
Text Speak License Plate

EFF and ACLU SoCal argued in a brief filed today with the California Supreme Court that citizens needs access to automated license plate reader (ALPR) records to understand exactly how this intrusive technology is used.

ALPRs are high-speed cameras mounted on light poles and police cars that continuously scan the plates of every passing car. They collect not only the license plate number but also the time, date, and location of each plate scanned, along with a photograph of the vehicle and sometimes its occupants. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) collect, on average, three million plate scans every week and have amassed a database of half a billion records.

EFF filed public records requests for a week’s worth of ALPR data from the agencies and, along with ACLU SoCal, sued after both refused to release the records.

EFF and ACLU SoCal are now asking the state supreme court to overturn aruling in the case from a lower court that said all license plate data—collected indiscriminately and without suspicion that the vehicle or driver was involved in a crime—could be withheld from disclosure as “records of law enforcement investigations.”

“That argument is tantamount to saying all drivers in Los Angeles are under criminal investigation at all times,’’ said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. “The ruling sets a troubling standard that would not just allow these agencies to keep ALPR data from the public but could also allow the police to keep data and footage from other surveillance technologies—from body cameras to drones to face recognition—from ever being scrutinized.”

“Drivers would be surprised to learn that they are under investigation every time they drive in public,” said Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the ACLU SoCal. “The Fourth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution exactly to prevent law enforcement from conducting mass, suspicionless investigations under ‘general warrants’ that target no specific person or place and never expire.”