State Appeals Court Lets Cops Hide License Plate Scans from the Public

Friday, May 08, 2015

The California Second District Court of Appeal is not going to tamp down the growing enthusiasm among law enforcement for scanning every available license plate in sight and storing it for years in a database with accompanying time and GPS data.

A three-judge panel unanimously rejected pleas from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) for access to one week’s worth of data gathered by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Sheriff’s Department to assess the scope of their activities.

The judges upheld a lower-court ruling that the records constituted part of official investigations and were not subject to a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request.

The facts were not in dispute. LAPD estimates it scans the license plates of approximately 1.2 million vehicles a week. The Sheriff’s Department pulls in about 1.7 to 1.8 million. LAPD keeps the data for five years and the Sheriff hangs on for two, but would like it to be indefinite.

The advocacy groups argued that the data was scooped up randomly and not as part of targeted investigations, unlike precedents cited by law enforcement. The trial and appellate courts disagreed, and reasoned that the data, albeit random, was “precipitated by specific criminal investigations—namely, the investigations that produced the ‘hot list’ of license plate numbers associated with suspected crimes.”

“Hot lists” are matched up with the stream of plate scans, which have resulted in the apprehension of some criminals, therefore, the accumulation of data on millions of innocents is deemed justified.

That accumulation does not come without consequences.

The trial judge, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant, acknowledged the “intrusive nature of ALPRs and the potential for abuse.” He also recognized that an analysis of the data would show if a few locations in communities were being focused on by the police. “The data will reveal whether police are targeting political demonstrations to help identify protesters, or other locations such as mosques, doctors’ offices or gay bars that might yield highly personal information,” Chalfant wrote.

But ultimately, that didn’t matter. Section 6254(f) of the CPRA protects police investigatory files. Case closed.

Earlier in the year, Ars Technica used a public records request to get hold of 4.6 million license plate scans from Oakland police. They created a visualization tool to show the data can be used to derive critical personal information, like someone’s home or workplace, their schedules and acquaintances. EFF used the Oakland data to plot eight days of records by the two cop cars equipped with scanners. They overwhelmingly took pictures in lower-income neighborhoods.  

EFF attorney Jennifer Lynch told Ars Technica in an e-mail that the decision, if it stands, could have far-reaching consequences beyond plate scanning:

“Although more than 99 percent of the millions of ALPR records collected on drivers in Los Angeles every week are never linked to any criminal or vehicle investigation, the California Court of Appeal held LAPD and LA Sheriff’s Department could withhold them as ‘investigative records.’ Based on this interpretation of the California Public Records Act (PRA), other important information like body camera footage would also be exempt.”

An appeal to the California Supreme Court is under consideration.

–Ken Broder

To Learn More:

LA Cops Need Not Disclose License Plate Reader Data, Says Appeals Court (by Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica)

Appeals Court Says Police Can Withhold License Plate Scans (by Brian Melley, Associated Press)

Judge Lets LAPD Hide License Plate Reader Data from Public (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

ACLU of Southern California et al v. County of Los Angeles et al (California Court of Appeal Second Appellate District) (pdf)

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