Senate Bill Addresses Limits On License Plate Readers

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Sen. Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, and Vermont State Police Lt. Michael Macarilla listen to testimony on a bill that would restrict the use of license plate readers Wednesday at the Statehouse.

By Kirk Carapezza

A bill in the Vermont Senate would regulate the use of license plate readers by establishing limits on how long information collected by the recognition machines is held.

License plate readers, or LPRs, are little cameras attached to police cruisers. They capture digital images of license plates, transmitting that data and allowing police to spot everything from expired registrations to car owners who may be wanted for more serious offenses. It is increasingly likely that these machines, which are now used in almost every state, have taken a picture of your car’s license plate.

Chittenden Senator Tim Ashe is sponsoring the bill that addresses privacy concerns. Ashe says the Legislature should weigh in with what he believes is “the right balancing act between law enforcement uses and privacy uses.”

“These license plate readers capture a tremendous amount of data, including where you or anybody you know may have been if you pass by one of these readers,” Ashe said. “That data can be stored essentially indefinitely.”

Across Vermont, more than 20 law enforcement agencies use license plate readers, citing their legitimate use in fighting crime. But civil liberties activists say the machines infringe upon individual privacy, and few states have proactively created laws to regulate their use.

The state of New Hampshire has prohibited them. In Maine, the Legislature allows the data to be stored for 21 days unless it’s being used for an investigation. In Vermont, absent an act of the Legislature, the Department of Public Safety has developed a policy to allow the storage of information for up to four years.

The information is collected at what public safety officials call their “fusion center” in Williston. The Senate bill would permit police to hold data there for 180 days.

“The policies are kind of all over the place on this throughout the country,” said Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn. He said license plate readers collect a time and GPS stamp – pinpointing the vehicle’s location – in addition to an image.

“There are certainly a lot of areas that could be addressed to help balance out some of the privacy concerns against the interest of law enforcement,” Flynn said. “There is a need for a statewide governance policy in regard to LPRs, how we’re going to store the data, how it’s going to be maintained. There certainly needs to be a discussion.”

Allen Gilbert with the ACLU of Vermont thinks lawmakers in that discussion should consider a 30-day limit on storing images of license plates.

“Unless the person is a suspect for a crime, we see no reason why this data should be maintained,” Gilbert said. “Government should not be collecting info about people who are not suspected.”

The Senate Transportation Committee is currently taking testimony on the bill, and it is expected to pass this biennium.

The goal, lawmakers and law enforcement officials agree, is to find a balance between modern law enforcement and surveillance that doesn’t breach privacy.

Read the bill here.

Earlier: License Plate Readers Spark Privacy Concerns (NPR)