Lawmakers target plate readers

Published 7:44 pm Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A license plate reader is fitted to the trunk of a Suffolk Police Department car. Chief Thomas Bennett said his officers would follow any new law relating to how they’re used.

A license plate reader is fitted to the trunk of a Suffolk Police Department car. Chief Thomas Bennett said his officers would follow any new law relating to how they’re used.

By Kevin Lata

Capital News Service

and Matthew A. Ward

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Staff Writer


Suffolk’s police chief said his department would follow any new law relating to license plate readers, after state lawmakers introduced bills that would limit the retention of collected data to one week.

Bills introduced this legislative session by Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, and Del. Rich Anderson, R-Prince William, seek to prevent law enforcement in Virginia from retaining such data indefinitely.

Usually mounted on the trunks of law enforcement vehicles, the high-speed cameras record the plate numbers of vehicles passing by and parked on the street.

They help locate stolen vehicles and, during investigations, those involved in crime.

But the practice lends itself to potential abuses, Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, said on the organization’s website.

For instance, she said, police could use LPR data to track a particular vehicle on any given day or to monitor religious or political activity.

In 2010, Suffolk Police Department received a state grant to acquire the technology, and two squad cars were outfitted.

One of the cars operates in the city’s north, and the second operates in the south, Police Chief Thomas Bennett said.

In February 2013, the ACLU applauded an opinion by then-attorney general Ken Cuccinelli stating readers could only be used to collect information for an active investigation.

Giving an example of that, Bennett said his officers could program into the system details of a vehicle suspected of being used in the commission of a murder. As the reader scanned every license plate in its path, the officer would be notified of any match.

Before the legal opinion in 2013, SPD — along with other Tidewater law enforcement departments with the technology — was using its readers for bulk data collection, Bennett said.

“As soon as that opinion came out, we stopped,” he said. But attorney general opinions are not legally binding, and many other departments across Virginia reportedly did not stop the practice.

Abiding by the opinion has not really impeded law enforcement or compromised public safety, according to Bennett.

He said the bulk collection and indefinite retention of data was helpful in locating stolen vehicles, but that isn’t a major crime in Suffolk.

Petersen’s bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology; Anderson’s had been assigned to the House Committee for Courts of Justice’s criminal law subcommittee.

“We feel our legislation strikes a balance between personal liberty and public safety in Virginia,” Petersen stated.

Anderson added, “I have the highest trust and respect for Virginia’s law enforcement professionals who ensure our safety, but the overwhelming sentiment of our citizens is that we restrict the collection, dissemination and retention of data that many feel violates our centuries-old principles of personal privacy.”

On Twitter, Petersen said the legislation “may be one of the most significant bills for the 2015 session.”