Civil Liberties

LA Cops' Claim That All Cars Are Under Investigation Challenged in License Plate Camera Tussle


Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department refused to release data about what license plates police cameras had captured on the grounds that every single car seen is under investigation. All of them. And a judge bought that argument.

Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU of Southern California are looking to the California Court of Appeal for a dose of sanity (yes, that strikes me as a Hail Mary pass, too) and a ruling that the public has a right to know how many people's movements are being monitored by the police, whether deliberately or through incidental data gathering.

That information can hit the creepy level very quickly, as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune discovered two years ago. After press inquiries, the police revealed a list of dates and places a reporter's car had been, and even the routes followed by the city's mayor.

I'm guessing it was that second point that spurred Minnesota legislation to limit access to license plate data, as well as how long it can be held.

Boston police stopped using license plate scanners entirely after they inadvertently data-dumped tracking information on 68,000 vehicles to the Boston Globe. The incident revealed that the cops weren't actually putting the data to good use (they kept recording the same stolen vehicles without following up) and were perhaps less than ideal stewards of sensitive material.

Who knows? Maybe LA cops are better than their colleagues elsewhere at using and protecting the information they gather on people's movements.


Patrick Hannaford noted yesterday that some police departments are getting squirrelly about revealing what license plate data they've gathered.