The Los Angeles Police Department is facing a lawsuit after the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation demanded to see the data collected from automatic license plate readers.
ALPRs are in fixed locations around the city, and each records as many as 1,800 plates per minute. There have been more than 160 million "data points" collected in Los Angeles County. Critics of the devices are fearful of how police are using this data, as it gives them information about the comings and goings of citizens who may not be doing anything wrong.
"By matching your car to a particular time, date and location - and building a database of that information over time - law enforcement can learn where you work and live, what doctor you go to, which religious services you attend, and who your friends are," EFF staff attorney Jennifer Lynch said. "The public needs access to data the police actually have collected to be able to make informed decisions about how ALPR systems can and can't be used."
The suit was filed Monday in LA County Superior Court. It asks for a judge to order the LAPD and the LA County Sheriff's Department to release records from the week of Aug. 12, 2012.
Both the sheriff's dept. and the police dept. have released materials after they received requests filed under the California Public Records Act, but they did not give documents related to sharing information with other agencies.
ALPRs can be placed on fixed locations, like stoplights, or can be mounted on squad cars. While those on squad cars must be activated by a police officer, the ones at fixed locations constantly scan plates and record dates and times that certain vehicles pass through certain locations.
The ones used by the LA County Sheriff's Dept. look for cars on "hot lists," made up of "user defined data that is manually input into the informational data file so that ALPR users will be alerted whenever a 'vehicle of interest' is located."
They use hot lists to locate vehicles related to AMBER alerts and the vehicles of sex offenders.
"Often times, these hotlists will identify a 'vehicle of interest' which is not necessarily wanted for a crime (ex: sex registrants vehicle)," the suit said. "Personnel must use discretion and in some cases have independent information justifying a traffic stop."
The lawsuit also alleges that the sheriff's dept. declined to release additional details about the hot list system, though the list falls within the definition of public records.
"These records do not fall under any exemption to the California Public Records Act (CPRA), and, even if portions of them do, they could be produced in redacted form," the suit read.
"Police can and should treat location information from ALPRs like other sensitive information," ACLU-SC Senior Staff Attorney Peter Bibring said. "They should retain it no longer than necessary to determine if it might be relevant to a crime and get a warrant if they need to keep it any longer. They should limit who can access it, who they can share it with and create an oversight system to make sure the limits are followed."
But Steve Whitmore, spokesman for LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, said the department is on "solid footing" by withholding records requests.
"But we're more than willing to have a judge decide this matter," he said. "The irony is we share the concern of privacy. Do we want to release files on people who have done nothing wrong?"