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How Long Should Police Be Able To Store License Plate Data?

Building
The Virginia State Capitol. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia legislators are weighing how long law enforcement should be able to hold onto license plate data they collect using automatic license plate readers. Members of a House Public Safety Committee considered a bill Friday that would ban agencies from storing the information for more than 30 days, unless it’s being used to investigate a crime or violation.

Democratic Sen. Chap Peterson, who introduced the bill, argued the government cannot collect and maintain data on its citizens for no known purpose.

Claire Gastañaga with the ACLU of Virginia said the state is, largely, a leader in data privacy and protection with its Government Data Collection Dissemination Practices Act. She said this bill will increase those already robust protections.

“There is no real difference between hoovering up license plates from across the commonwealth, and maintaining them in a database for long periods of time, and then using an algorithm to search for certain things,” Gastañaga  said. “There's no difference between that in its functional reality in terms of our privacy, than putting the GPS on the back of my car. And you have to have a warrant to do that.”

But there was pushback on the bill, with some signaling concern about the delicate balance between privacy and helping law enforcement solve criminal investigations.

Chris Sigler, Assistant Fairfax County Attorney said the bill tries to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. 

“This is used for law enforcement purposes. It's not used to track citizens,” Sigler said. “This data is used to track down criminals, murderers. It's used to track down missing persons, victims of sex trafficking and those sorts of things. And along with that, there's training and standard operating procedures to go along with that, that put guardrails on it.”

Sigler noted that license plates aren’t personal information. The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled last October that law enforcement agencies in the state can keep information captured by automated license plate readers. Justices said license plate numbers, in addition to corresponding time and location information is not considered personal, identifying information.

“You don’t own your license plate. You just don’t own it,” Sigler said. “It belongs to the Commonwealth of Virginia. So I'm going to ask rhetorically, if you don't personally own the information, how can it be personal information? It just doesn't make any sense.”

Alexandria Police Chief Mike Brown objected as well, saying the bill does not provide enough time for law enforcement.

“Thirty days is an incredibly short window in which to try and find not only information on a suspect, but also to corroborate alibis and exonerate innocent people,” Brown said.

In the end, legislators decided to study the issue instead of passing the proposed 30-day deadline. By an 18-4 vote, they directed the Virginia secretary of public safety and homeland security to convene a working group to review the use of license plate readers and recommend a length of time that data should be kept.