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License plate readers & databases: legal dilemmas abound

In theory, automatic license plate readers can be an effective crime-fighting tool. The idea is that the optical reader scans the license plates of cars going down the road and creates a record of the license plate, model and make of cars, and the time and place that the record was retrieved. The record is compared to a “hot list” of license numbers of cars involved in a crime, stolen vehicles, hit and runs, or cars seen leaving a crime scene. The information is sent to an officer near where the recording took place who can then follow up. A large number of crimes have been solved that otherwise might not have been, using this system.

However, civil liberty groups have raised the question of whether the use of license plate readers violates the 4th Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits unlawful search and seizure. The ACLU is filing suit in the Virginia courts, arguing that state law enforcement is holding onto these records indefinitely whether or not the vehicles in question are ever connected with a crime.

The practice of building a database of vehicle license plates that, in effect, tracks the movements of Americans whether or not they are under suspicion of committing a crime is troubling for obvious reasons. The question that needs to be settled by the courts is how long it is reasonable to retain the LPR information.

Usually the system catches stolen cars almost immediately. Moreover, the retention of LRP records likely violates Virginia’s Data Act, which permits the retention of records only when they are connected to an ongoing investigation. The Data Act is the law around which the ACLU lawsuit revolves. The Virginia State Police are purging records every 24 hours. Other law enforcement agencies are retaining the records, on the theory that license plates are publically displayed, therefore not protected by the Data Act.

In the meantime, if you are under suspicion of having committed a crime, you need to contact a criminal defense attorney right away.

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