Speak Out: License Plate Readers—Good Policing or Invasion of Privacy?

Three Rockville City Police cruisers are equipped with scan license plate scanners. How long should the city hold on to the data?

Even if you never utter a word, technology enables police to know where you’ve been.

Three Rockville City Police cruisers are equipped with license plate scanners—there are 22 in Montgomery County.  

The scanners capture the license plate for any vehicle that passes within view of the scanner, regardless of whether the vehicle has committed a violation, and stores the information.  A police car equipped with a scanner could capture hundreds or even thousands of license plates while stationed on a roadway.

At issue is how long the data collected by the city's scanners should be stored. Currently Rockville’s data dumps into the county’s system, where the policy is to store it forever.

As the City Council and Mayor mulls this issue—Councilman Tom Moore hopes to continue the discussion at a town hall meeting on March 20—Patch wants to know what you think.

Here are the two main views presented to the council and mayor on Monday: 

Montgomery County Police: Storing data indefinitely helps solve crimes

Montgomery County Police currently have 22 automated license plate readers, according to Russ Hamill, Assistant Chief, Montgomery County Department of Police.

Hamill said the plate readers help police do their jobs. For one officer, using the plate reader over the course of 27 days led to:

  • 255 traffic violations
  • four stolen tags
  • three arrests
  • 16 suspension violators
  • 26 suspended licenses
  • one expired tag

“That's good solid policing, what we expect our officers to be out here doing,” Hamill said.

Then there are more serious cases, like the one involving Phillip Gilberti—who spent a day fleeing from police after he shot his soon-to-be ex-wife in his minivan and threw her out onto Connecticut Avenue in Kensington. About 12 hours later, Gilberti was found dead at a residence in Rockville with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Patch reported.

Hamill said police used the license plate readers to track Gilberti’s movements.

“There were a lot of people who thought they might be next,” Hamill said.

He also gave a hypothetical example of a cold case in which two girls go missing and a possible suspect emerges a year-and-a-half later.

“If we dump that data after a year,” Hamill said, “I'm the one sitting with the mother and father and says, 'You know, we might have been able to solve this case, but I had to dump the data. I can't help you and it's my fault. I'm sorry.’”

ACLU and Electronic Privacy Information Center: Unfettered data storage is an invasion of privacy

In 2011, Rockville’s three license plate readers submitted data for 101,000 license plates, according to ACLU attorney David Rocah.

Rocah and Electronic Privacy Information Center's Open Government Director Ginger McCall said the problem isn’t with police use of license plate readers but rather the privacy issues that arise from retaining and aggregating the data they collect and what happens outside the scope of immediate use.

Rocah said, as part of a broader ACLU initiative, he requested from the state of Maryland any license plate data that may have been collected on him.

“And sure enough—even though as far as I know, I'm not suspected of any wrong-doing, my license has never been suspended, I believe I've never so much as gotten a speeding ticket—the state of Maryland has [automatic license plate reader] data on me," Rocah told the mayor and council Monday. "In fact, in some ways knows more about me and my movements than I do.”

When addressing the mayor and council, McCall cited U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s concurring opinion in United States v. Jones. In the case, law enforcement placed a hidden GPS device on a suspect’s vehicle in order to track his movements, which the Supreme Court determined violated the Fourth Amendment.

“GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations. … Disclosed in [GPS] data . . . will be trips the indisputably private nature of which takes little imagination to conjure: trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on. … The Government can store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future.”

More recently in Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion limiting the use of police license-late cameras, The Washington Post reports, which is likely to restrict how police track cars.


Speak out: What do you think? How long should Rockville City Police hold onto data from license plate readers? Should police have indefinite access? Is a year reasonable? Is one year too long? Should public policy do more to set limits on how such data is handled? Post your comments below.



Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published. Ginger McCall is the Open Government Director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. 

Tom Moore March 15, 2013 at 02:55 PM
I would like to extend an invitation to everyone to come out and discuss this topic at the town-hall meeting on Wednesday, March 20, at 7 p.m. in City Hall. There aren't a lot of opportunities for local government to act to protect its citizens' privacy rights, but this is definitely one of them! More details here: http://councilmembermoore.org/?p=151 Thanks! Tom Moore Councilmember, City of Rockville
Roald Schrack March 15, 2013 at 04:23 PM
The government, the police force and other agencies designed to enforce legal regulations are my friend and not an enemy. I have violated speed laws and other minor infractions of the laws without intent and expect to be held accountable. What society is stable where the law can be violated willingly and the violators hope to get away with it? Our society rests on the premise that the laws are written with good intent and depend on voluntary compliance. The fear that accumulated data could be used against a citizen implies that the government doing so acts with evil intent. Constant vigilance against those that would use government to achieve evil ends is the duty of every citizen. If the citizenry is negligent and elects those to power that would abuse that power, then even a weak and ineffective police is intolerable.
Jim Ross March 15, 2013 at 05:07 PM
Hey folks, this tool is used to find suspended tags or tags that are stolen or cars that are stolen, cars that are wanted for some criminal reason. The police have, for many years, ridden around in their vehicles checking vehicle registrations for violations or charges via the state and federal computer systems, this is just way more efficient!! Believe me, if your child was abducted and a look out was placed on a suspect vehicle and one of these tag readers identified that vehicle as it passed by, (with the bad guy obeying all the traffic laws so as not to get caught), and the tag reader allowed the police to catch the kidnapper, would you mind the police having the tag reader then????? Just saying!!!
Rob Speed March 15, 2013 at 05:50 PM
That was a fairly good summary of the principles on which police states are based. I recommend reading a paper written by a professor at GW Law called "I've got Nothing to Hide," and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy. It can explain far better than I the mistake inherent in favoring the enforcement of laws over privacy. http://tehlug.org/files/solove.pdf
Tom Moore March 15, 2013 at 05:55 PM
Mr Ross, Thank you for that! You're not going to get any disagreement here -- these cameras are a terrific tool. It's what happens *after* that picture is taken and that initial match is made that worries me -- do we want the government to keep a permanent record of everywhere everyone goes? That's a very different question.
Theresa Defino March 15, 2013 at 10:21 PM
If you run a red light, and a camera snaps your license, or you are speeding and the same thing happens, that's different than the way these plate reader/cameras operate. I urge Roald and others to understand the distinction. These readers read EVERY LICENSE of EVERY CAR that drives by, with no consideration of whether laws are being broken or adhered to. The police are not meant to be your "friend" nor your "enemy." Limits and safeguards are absolutely essential. In Virginia, these readers may be outlawed entirely. I believe the problem begins when the picture is snapped, not just afterward. Would anyone want an unmanned drone flying over his or her house taking pictures with no probable cause? Google didn't have much luck trying this tact with its street viewer cameras.
Matt March 15, 2013 at 11:00 PM
You have no expectation of privacy driving down the road. You have no expectation of not having your license plate checked at any time. In fact, YOU DON'T EVEN OWN THAT LICENSE PLATE! It belongs to the state and is issued to you as part of your registration. Remember, you have to give it back when you're not going to use it anymore! So nobody has any right to complain about the police, whether with their own eyes or with sensors, checking the license plate on your car. The matter is not up for discussion or debate. The topic up dicussion is how long should the government store that data? Should it just check it and be gone? Or should the date, time, and location be stored for X days/months/years. My opinion, forever. It could be the break in a 20 year old cold case one day.
Theresa Defino March 16, 2013 at 12:04 AM
Actually, Matt, that is not true, and you could review the SCOTUS decision referred to in this story for more info.
Joe Shono March 16, 2013 at 05:24 PM
Why is the data kept? As a future investigative tool for a crime that occurred. No one cares what law abiding citizens are doing or where are they going. But if data can be reviewed in search of a killer, kidnapper, or a terrorist; isn't that in everyone's best interest? Can someone please give an example where the historical data was used by the government for nefarious reasons? If historical data is being reviewed its because they are looking for a specific car or person i n the act of a crime for the purpose of prosecuting a criminal. As a friend of many police officers, I say get rid of the license plate readers. Let's limit our ability to stop crime before it effects good people. Lets allow police haters like Tom Moore limit public safety and then lets let everybody whine and cry when something awful happens in Rockville. "The police aren't doing anything about it." It makes me laugh. People in this country are so entitled to their rights in this country that they don't even know that we are our own worst enemy. For the record: Film me going to the store,listen to my phone conversations read my emails. You will die of boredom before you ever offend me.
Laurene Sabine March 16, 2013 at 11:58 PM
Part of the SCOTUS ruling cited....“GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.…" Well then....tell me what is gleened from a single snapshot of my tag, in a single moment of time, in one specific location while driving down Connecticut Avenue? And two weeks later, another snapshot of my tag on I-495? Tell me what someone can deduce from those two pieces of data? They know my C A R was in those two locations...I see NO familial, political, professional, religious, or sexual association being made with those two pieces of data! And Rocah's statement to Mayor and Council about the State of Maryland's captured license data... "In fact, in some ways knows more about me and my movements than I do.” Really? do they know WHO was driving his car? who was with him, where he was going? Now, with that said, a GPS affixed to a car, monitoring every movement of the CAR (not the person) and logging every location visited?!?!?...sure.....I have a problem with that! Councilman Moore....Mr. Rocah...give me more compelling reasons to abandoned this technology than your concern over the data being retained for a lengthy period of time and "what if" someone got a hold the data indicating my CAR was logged on Connecticut Ave or I495.
Matt March 18, 2013 at 10:48 AM
Theresa: No, you ma'am are wrong and I am precisely correct. The SCOTUS citation you reference has nothing to do with this. That was a GPS tracking device placed on the vehicle for surveillance purposes. Nice try. Lauren & Joe, Thank you. It is refreshing to see an occasional logical person on the internet.
Tom Moore March 18, 2013 at 10:56 AM
This is a great discussion, and I invite each of you to continue it at the town-hall meeting this Wednesday, March 20, at 7 p.m. in City Hall!
Matt March 18, 2013 at 04:23 PM
For the people who think this is unconstitutional or somehow wrong, I expect that you will be turning in your EZ-Pass. After all, those log every vehicle that goes through the lanes. They photograph the vehicle and plates, the log your plates, and the data is stored. So you can't use those EZ-Pass lanes anymore. Actually most Toll Plazas have cameras that record all vehicle traffic, and retain for X days/months/years. So you might have to stay off toll roads all together. Or, more likely, you will be hypocritical about it, those facts, and still complain about the cruiser mounted ones.
Rob Speed March 19, 2013 at 05:12 PM
That's not even remotely true. The police can't access EZ-Pass records without a subpoena – and rightly so. If they're collecting the data themselves, however, there's nothing preventing them from accessing the data at any time. According the the Supreme Court, simply collecting data on an individual's movement (like in United States v. Jones) is considered a search, and cannot be performed without a court order. Thinking that the police could use this data to find criminals is an ignorant pipe dream, as the case would be thrown out for violating the suspect's constitutional rights.
Deborah Durham March 25, 2013 at 03:08 PM
The statement "I have nothing to hide" could not be truer. Just wait until you have a problem or one of your family members is missing, then you will expect the police to know every detail about your life. Why should the police have to jump through hoops to - HELP YOU???? My daughter and son-in-law are decetives and you would not believe the road blocks that are in place to keep the police from catching the bad guys. Maybe the answer to please help me should be "I would really like to help but I haved to wait a week or so until the information I need is available." And really, the police don't really care where you have been or what you talk about. They are there to protect YOU and try to rid our county of "bad guys".


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