Civil Liberties

Ban on Government License Plate Cameras Nears in Montana

Big Sky Country, now with less creepiness.


Cops in Big Sky Country aren't happy about it, but Montana lawmakers look ready to ban the use of license plate cameras by government agencies to track motorists' movements. The legislative move comes after a stream of revelations of local, state, and federal tracking and databasing of Americans' movements by car, without cause or warrant.

A year ago, the Department of Homeland Security killed a solicitation for bids to establish and maintain "a National License Plate Recognition (NLPR) database service" after a chorus of public outrage. The DHS plan may actually have been duplication of effort, since the DEA already has a national license plate scanning system maintained with the cooperation of local police. If passed, the Montana measure couldn't block such efforts from D.C., but it would prevent agencies within the state from contributing to those schemes. 

Approved by the House Judiciary Committee on February 13, HB 344 states "an agency or employee of the state or any subdivision of the state may not use, either directly or indirectly, a license plate scanner on any public highway," with limited exceptions. Those exceptions include weigh stations for commercial trucks, city planning so long as driver and vehicle anonymity was maintained, parking control, and tracking government vehicles.

Interestingly, in a move clearly aimed at preventing technological end runs by police agencies, the bill defines "license plate scanners" broadly.

In this section, "license plate scanner" means a device principally designed and primarily used for determining the ownership of a motor vehicle, the mileage or route traveled by a motor vehicle, the location or identity of a motor vehicle, or the identity of a motor vehicle's occupants on the public highways, as defined in 60-1-103, through the use of a camera or other imaging device or any other device, including but not limited to a transponder, cellular telephone, global positioning satellite, e-z pass AUTOMATED ELECTRONIC TOLL COLLECTION SYSTEM, automated license plate recognition system, or radio frequency identification device that by itself or in conjunction with other devices or information can be used to determine the ownership of a motor vehicle or the identity of a motor vehicle's occupants or the mileage, location, or route traveled by the motor vehicle.

According to local press coverage, during the committee hearing on the bill, the measure was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Libertarian Party, and opposed by police.

"This bill ties the hands of law enforcement. In advance," complained Larry Epstein of the Montana Association of Police Chiefs.

Well, yeah. That's the idea.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R-Billings), the bill's sponsor, is a young hotshot among liberty-leaning Republicans. Forbes has him on its "30 under 30" list of law and policy movers and shakers. Zolnikov describes himself as "a strong believer in gun rights, civil rights concerning our freedoms and liberties, limited government, a simplified tax code, economic freedom and a competitive job environment." His specialty is privacy issues, and he's currently sponsoring a media shield bill in addition to the measure to protect motorists' privacy. He details his votes and positions on Facebook.