COLUMBIA S.C. (Dec. 7, 2015) – A bill introduced in the South Carolina House would completely ban the use of automatic license plate readers by law enforcement in the state. It would also throw significant roadblocks in the way of a federal program using states to help track the location of millions of everyday people through pictures of their license plates.
Rep. J. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland) prefiled House Bill 4496 (H.4496) on Dec. 3. The legislation would completely ban the use of automatic license plate readers by state and local law enforcement with no exceptions. Any law enforcement agency violating the law would face a $1,000 fine for each violation.
Prohibiting law enforcement agencies from gathering information with this technology would put a big monkey wrench in a federal program to track individuals through ALPRs.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL PROGRAMS
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), tracks the location of millions of vehicle. They’ve engaged in this for nearly eight years, all without warrants, or even public notice of the policy.
State and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems, paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.
Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, H.4496 would essentially block that program from continuing in the state. The feds can’t access data that doesn’t exist.
“No data means no federal license plate tracking program,” Tenth Amendment Center founder and executive director Michael Boldin said.
Law enforcement generally configures ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of vehicles. But according to newly disclosed records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA is also captures photographs of drivers and their passengers.
According to the ACLU,
One internal 2009 DEA communication stated clearly that the license plate program can provide “the requester” with images that “may include vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle.” Clearly showing that occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated, a 2011 email states that the DEA’s system has the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”
With the FBI rolling out facial a nationwide recognition program in the fall of 2014, and the federal government building biometric databases, the fact that the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed location data, magnifies the privacy concerns surrounding ALPRs.
If South Carolina were to ban ALPRs it would prevent law enforcement agencies from capturing vehicle occupant images in mass. This ensures their photos will be far less likely to end up in these federal databases. Again, the feds can’t get a hold of things that don’t exist in the first place. If enough states pass similar legislation, it would effectively nullify the federal program in practice.
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