California Attorney General Advises Law Enforcement on License Plate Reader Policies

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California Attorney General Advises Law Enforcement on License Plate Reader Policies

A street light equipped with a camera and license plate reader in San Diego. (Courtesy of the City of San Diego)

Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

11/2/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

With most California law enforcement agencies operating or planning to install automated license plate recognition systems, Attorney General Rob Bonta issued advisory bulletins Oct. 30 alerting officials to legal statutes regulating data collection, storage, and sharing policies and reminding them of obligations to ensure compliance with the law.
“As technology that helps us protect the public continues to advance, it is important that we put in place safeguards to ensure that this technology is used appropriately and lawfully,” Mr. Bonta said in a press release announcing the advisory. “While this technology may be a helpful investigative tool, Californians must be able to trust that their information is being kept safe.”
Automated license plate readers can be fixed to stationary objects or mounted on law enforcement vehicles and offer real-time surveillance and image archives that allow investigations to identify vehicles and persons of interest involved in a crime.
Approximately 70 percent of law enforcement agencies across the state are using or planning to use such technology, according to a 2020 state auditor report.
Cameras capture photographs of all license plates in view, while software extracts image, time, and location details for storage in a searchable database and automatically compares the information to existing lists of vehicles of interest, according to the report.
Concerns, however, exist due to the auditor report’s conclusion that agencies using such technology are failing to comply with state law.
A license plate reader, one of two mounted on the trunk of a Metropolitan Police Department is seen on a police car in Washington on Dec. 1, 2011. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

A license plate reader, one of two mounted on the trunk of a Metropolitan Police Department is seen on a police car in Washington on Dec. 1, 2011. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

“To better protect the privacy of residents, local law enforcement agencies must improve their policies, procedures, and monitoring for the use and retention of license plate images and corresponding data,” the authors wrote.
Surveys revealed that few law enforcement agencies have policies in place to ensure compliance, and the actions of four agencies questioned in the report—the Fresno and Los Angeles police departments and the Marin County and Sacramento County sheriff’s departments—suggested to auditors that more work needs to be done safeguarding privacy and adhering to legal statutes.
“The agencies we reviewed either did not have [license plate reader] policies or their policies were deficient, and they had not implemented sufficient safeguards,” Elaine Howell, California state auditor, wrote in a letter accompanying the report to the governor and lawmakers. “Furthermore, three of the four agencies have shared their [license plate reader] images widely, without considering whether the entities receiving them have a right to and need for the images.”
Data collected by license plate readers is safeguarded by California law, including one passed in 2015 preventing the sale and limiting the sharing of information to other public agencies only.
Further restricting law enforcement sharing of data was passed in 2017 preventing agencies from sharing personal information, including home and work addresses, for immigration enforcement purposes with state and federal authorities.
State grants are funding the installation of license plate readers throughout the state, including recently announced projects slated for Chula Vista—near San Diego—and Oakland.
Critics of the new technology voiced concern surrounding privacy and the tendency for law enforcement to share information with agencies in other states—potentially regarding abortion procedures—after an investigation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation—a nonprofit focused on civil liberties and securing digital privacy for individuals around the world—discovered that 71 law enforcement agencies in California are sharing data with partners in other states.
“[Automated license plate readers] invade people’s privacy and violate the rights of entire communities, as they often are deployed in poor and historically overpoliced areas regardless of crime rates,” Adam Schwartz, the foundation’s senior staff attorney, said in a May press release demanding a stop to such activity. “Sharing ... data with law enforcement in states that criminalize abortion undermines California’s extensive efforts to protect reproductive health privacy.”
In issuing the bulletins, the attorney general said agencies now have the resources they need to comply.
“Today, we remind law enforcement of their responsibility to safeguard this data and ensure its use is consistent with state law,” Mr. Bonta said.
Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

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Travis Gillmore is an avid reader and journalism connoisseur based in California covering finance, politics, the State Capitol, and breaking news for The Epoch Times.

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