By Tom Jackman
The police use of automatic license plate readers, photographing hundreds of license plates per minute and capturing the exact time and place of the photo, has become routine in law enforcement and is credited with helping to solve all manner of crimes, find missing persons and locate stolen autos. But the vast data those readers generate continues to alarm civil liberties advocates, troubled by the possibility of police tracking people’s movements, and now a legal challenge is headed to Virginia’s Supreme Court to determine whether the police can keep the information indefinitely — or not at all.
Different states, and individual police departments, have varying policies on how long the police can keep the data from their license plate readers. In Colorado, the data can be kept for three years. In New Hampshire, state law says the readers can’t be used at all. In Virginia, where there is no restriction, the American Civil Liberties Union entered the swirling controversy over data retention by suing the Fairfax County Police Department, seeking an injunction to prevent them from keeping the license data they currently maintain for a year. Last month, a Fairfax judge threw the case out, ruling that a license plate is not “personal information,” in what appears to be the first court ruling nationwide on that issue, important in states which prohibit government from keeping citizens’ personal information.