Civil Liberties

All Cars Are Under Investigation, LAPD Tells Court


Adrian Pingstone

In the course of seeking data about the Los Angeles Police Department's automatic license plate reader program, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked the police for some information. Specifically, what plates cameras had captured over the course of two years, and the department's policies for using and retaining what those cameras nabbed. We can't tell you, the cops replied, because every car we see is under investigation, which makes it a (sshhhh) secret.

Every car. Over two years.

Specifically, in their court filing (a hearing is scheduled for March 21), LAPD mouthpieces wrote:

Government Code section 6254 sets forth numerous categories of records that are exempt from the disclosure requirements of the [California Public Records Act]. One of those categories, found in subdivision (f), exempts law enforcement investigatory records from disclosure….

The ALPR data sought in this case—electronic records consisting of vehicles' license plates, and the date, time and location those license plates were captured by the Department's ALPR cameras—constitute "records of…investigations conducted by … any local police agency" which fall squarely under this statutory exemption.

Just so there's no misunderstanding, the filing added, "All ALPR data is investigatory—regardless of whether a license plate scan results in an immediate 'hit' because, for instance, the vehicle may be stolen, the subject of an 'Amber Alert,' or operated by an individual with an outstanding arrest warrant."

"May?" Well, yes, any car that drives by a camera "may" be a lot of things. "May" opens up a fascinating world of speculation, full of intriguing possibilities. But, as the EFF's Jennifer Lynch wrote:

This argument is completely counter to our criminal justice system, in which we assume law enforcement will not conduct an investigation unless there are some indicia of criminal activity. In fact, the Fourth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution exactly to prevent law enforcement from conducting mass, suspicionless investigations under "general warrants" that targeted no specific person or place and never expired.

The LAPD also said revealing the license plates it had tracked would threaten drivers' privacy. Unlike, apparently, tracking them to begin with.

The full filing is below.