In Arlington County, a 67-year-old man had been missing for two days when the police delved into their license plate reader database and saw that his car’s plate had been photographed two days earlier. Officers went to the location and found the man, disoriented and critically dehydrated.
In Sterling, sheriff’s deputies located an alleged sex attacker when they checked their license plate data and found that he was staying just blocks from the attack, not at the address linked to the license plate.
Local police in Virginia will retain their ability to collect data from license plate reader cameras for at least another year, even though an attorney general’s opinion last year declared that doing so was illegal. On Monday, the second of two bills in the General Assembly to limit police collection of such data was tabled for the year, after both legislators agreed that their bills required more study and more specific wording.
This means the debate weighing the importance of personal privacy vs. solving crimes and finding missing persons will continue for another year. The conversation is happening across the country as politicians try to decide how long data collected from license plate reader cameras — which can snap hundreds of license plate photos per minute, with time, date and location information — can be maintained.
After then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) wrote last year that, under Virginia law, keeping such data when it wasn’t specifically tied to an investigation was illegal, the Virginia State Police promptly began dumping their license data after 24 hours. But police departments in Northern Virginia and elsewhere in the state decided to ignore the attorney general’s opinion. Alexandria, for instance, keeps data for two years.
Following a Washington Post article about the practice, Del. Richard L. Anderson (R-Prince William) and Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) introduced bills defining a license plate number as “personal information” and saying that data tracking tag locations may not be kept without a specific investigative purpose.
Police officials and the license technology’s supporters were gearing up for a fight, saying that the bills were too vague and could be interpreted to restrict all manner of uses, including homeland security around the nation’s capital. They also noted the many successful uses of the data to make arrests and locate people and said the data shouldn’t be erased because of the possibility that someone might access the information illegally.
“We actually share some of the intent of the bills,” said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, “that there ought to be clear language on the use of the data and its retention.” Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union warned that the data could be used to track the movement of private citizens over time and misused by those who might have access to that information.
Anderson said he planned to help form a working group that involved the ACLU, law enforcement and other interested groups to study how to manage the license plate data. He said he thought Cuccinelli’s opinion was correct, and “I want to make sure we have rules set that are embraced by all the jurisdictions in the commonwealth. We want to standardize this.”
Prosecutors hope legislators “allow the police to keep this tool in their tool box,” Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh (D) said. Fairfax police keep their license data for a year. “I’m not denigrating people’s concerns for privacy. You’re on camera every day. But I don’t think it’s any more intrusive, and I think it saves lives.”