Police in RVA scanning license plates; some raising privacy concerns

Published: Nov. 6, 2014 at 1:50 PM EST
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CHESTERFIELD, VA (WWBT) - License plate readers are popping up all over the country and here in RVA. They're cameras mounted onto police cruisers, and they can scan plate numbers to help solve crimes, find missing people or stolen cars - but some are asking if it's a big invasion of your privacy.

Police are looking for a wanted suspect - it used to take hours to manually enter the tags of every car in the lot, but a new technology is making it possible for officers to just drive by. A camera on their cruiser will let them know if there's a car that's been flagged.

"It helps  us immensely," said Corporal George Fisher. "You'd be all day trying to do a thousand plates. Take this vehicle through, in about an hour you can check a thousand plates."

They're called License Plate Readers, or LPRs. They are cameras mounted to cruisers - usually on the back.

"The right lane - as vehicles go by, this camera will capture that information," said Fisher.

They scan the license plates of cars in nearby lanes, even on highways, flagging stolen cars or cars where the owner is wanted.

Chesterfield Police have 3 LPRs. They got their first in 2008, and two more in 2011 with homeland security grants.

"We're basically out there to recover what has been stolen by the criminal and try to get it returned to the owners using some technology," said Fisher.

What does Chesterfield do with all that data? Where does it go?

"We don't upload it anywhere," said Fisher.

That's because the LPRs also capture pictures, and the majority of plates scanned belong to average citizens, not criminals. It's that data that's causing all the controversy nationwide.

Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli even wrote an opinion before leaving office that the data and pictures stored by police "can not lawfully be collected through use of LPR technology."

"He said they're not allowed to keep that data, under the state law, for any purpose over the long term," said Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU.

Gastanaga believes there needs to be a common set of rules for all police agencies using this technology.

"We don't want police to be like the military," said Gastanaga. "We do want police to have good technology and good equipment that they use with warrants in a way that respects peoples privacy and their constitutional rights."

When the AG issued his ruling, State Police immediately purged its database of eight million license plate records - but several police agencies in Northern Virginia are ignoring the opinion.

Kathryn Watson always knew she was being watched. She just didn't realize how much Alexandria Police knew about her. Under an open-record request, the journalist for the non-profit watchdog.org requested all the data linked to her name and license plate.

"Different photos of my car, over eight different occasions. That was really fascinating," said Watson.

The pictures show her car just about everywhere in the city - including the private parking lot of her apartment complex - even catching her on the way to Bible study. Alexandria Police defend the images it collects and stores.

"We don't know when we're going to need that information until a crime has occurred," said a spokesperson for Alexandria Police.

Richmond doesn't use the cameras. Ashland Police just bought two, but the town council voted they can't store any plate data. Henrico has two cameras but shelved them once the AG opinion came out.

In Chesterfield, the LPRs are in use, but the data is only kept in the cruisers and is erased in 30 days or as new plates are captured.

Rachel DePompa: "And the data is not stored. It's not big brother?"

Corporal Fisher: "Correct. We don't upload it to a major computer system."

Rachel DePompa: "And it disappears within 30 days from inside the cruiser?"

Corporal Fisher: "Correct. From inside the cruiser."

Several lawmakers are tackling this issue during the next session, introducing bills to create a uniform policy to prevent police from collecting license plate data and storing it.

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