Controversial Technology Becoming Common Place With Law Enforcement

A surveillance technology that few people are aware of, designed to track the movements of  Automatic License Plate Reader every passing driver, is fast becoming a common tool used by law enforcement. Automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), mounted on police cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute. National interest in law enforcement and technology has already been a hot topic since the Department of Justice’s announcement in September that its agencies must obtain a warrant before using a StingRay cell-site simulator. However, where StingRay devices have minimal guidance on their usage, it can easily be argued that ALPRs lack clear authority.

The information captured by ALPRs – including the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of every scan – is being collected, stored and sometimes pooled into regional law enforcement sharing systems. As a result, enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information are growing rapidly. This information is often retained for years or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights. ALPRs are becoming so ubiquitous in law enforcement that the device already has its own wikipedia page.

Tennessee legislation passed in 2014 addressing law enforcement’s use of ALPRs provides that any captured automatic license plate data collected by a government entity may not be stored for more than 90 days unless they are part of an ongoing investigation, and in that case provides for data to be destroyed after the conclusion of the investigation.

The implications for citizens’ privacy and civil liberties are staggering.

Because people spend so much time in their cars, especially in commuting municipalities like Nashville, law enforcement and the government can potentially glean very personal information from the license plate data. In the United Kingdom, authorities have access to a national database which is used to mark the cars that the state deems need to be on a watch list.

In our society, it is a core principle that the government does not invade people’s privacy and collect information about citizens’ innocent activities just in case they do something wrong.

Donna Wagner is a criminal defense attorney who has been practicing law since 2004. If you are in need of experienced, competent legal council contact Ms. Wagner to schedule a consultation.


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