(USA TODAY) -- Police are recording and storing information on millions of license
plates that aren't related to suspected violation of the law or any
known activity of interest to law enforcement, according to data
collected by the American Civil Liberties Union through Freedom of
Information requests in 38 states.
The license-plate scanners look
like video cameras and generally are mounted in pairs on either rear
fender, the trunk or sometimes the roof of police cars and parking
enforcement vehicles. Some also are mounted in stationary locations,
such as road signs or bridges.
They are "in effect, government
location tracking systems recording the movements of many millions of
innocent Americans in huge databases," said ACLU Staff Attorney
Catherine Crump, the report's lead author. And the ACLU says there is
little supervision or control over the data recorded, in most cases
without the citizen knowing.
The ACLU says that only "a tiny
fraction of the license plate scans are flagged as 'hits.' For example,
in Maryland, for every million plates read, only 47 (0.005%) were
potentially associated with a stolen car or a person wanted for a crime.
"Yet, the documents show that many police departments are
storing - for long periods of time - huge numbers of records on scanned
plates that do not return 'hits.' For example, police in Jersey City,
N.J., recorded 2.1 million plate reads last year. As of August 2012,
Grapevine, Texas, had 2 million plate reads stored and Milpitas, Calif.,
had 4.7 million."
Report: License plate date on millions of innocent motorists kept indefinitely
Police Sgt. Frank Morales said Milpitas, population 68,000, "is a small
community, but we attract very many visitors. We have a large mall
here, the Great Mall" and that could account for the outsize number of
license plate records. It's a discount mall situated between two
interstate highways and two freeways.
The ACLU last summer,
in 38 states and Washington, filed nearly 600 Freedom of Information Act
requests asking federal, state, and local agencies how they use the
readers. The 26,000 pages of documents produced by the agencies that
responded - about half - include training materials, internal memos, and
The rights organization has more
than a dozen recommendations for government use of license plate scanner
systems and the data collected, including:
- Police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred before examining the data.
- Unless there are legitimate reasons to retain records, they should be deleted within days or weeks at most.
- People should be able to find out if their cars' location history is in a law enforcement database.