In the course of seeking data
about the Los Angeles Police Department’s automatic license plate
reader program, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked the police for some
information. Specifically, what plates cameras had captured over
the course of two years, and the department’s policies for using
and retaining what those cameras nabbed. We can’t tell you, the
cops replied, because every car we see is under investigation,
which makes it a (sshhhh) secret.
Every car. Over two years.
Specifically, in their court filing (a hearing is scheduled for
March 21), LAPD
Government Code section 6254 sets forth numerous categories of
records that are exempt from the disclosure requirements of the
[California Public Records Act]. One of those categories, found in
subdivision (f), exempts law enforcement investigatory records from
The ALPR data sought in this case—electronic records consisting
of vehicles’ license plates, and the date, time and location those
license plates were captured by the Department’s ALPR
cameras—constitute “records of…investigations conducted by …
any local police agency” which fall squarely under this statutory
Just so there’s no misunderstanding, the filing added, “All ALPR
data is investigatory—regardless of whether a license plate scan
results in an immediate ‘hit’ because, for instance, the vehicle
may be stolen, the subject of an ‘Amber Alert,’ or operated by an
individual with an outstanding arrest warrant.”
“May?” Well, yes, any car that drives by a camera “may” be a lot
of things. “May” opens up a fascinating world of speculation, full
of intriguing possibilities. But, as the EFF’s Jennifer Lynch
This argument is completely counter to our criminal justice
system, in which we assume law enforcement will not conduct an
investigation unless there are some indicia of criminal activity.
In fact, the Fourth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution
exactly to prevent law enforcement from conducting mass,
suspicionless investigations under “general warrants” that targeted
no specific person or place and never expired.
The LAPD also said revealing the license plates it had tracked
would threaten drivers’ privacy. Unlike, apparently, tracking them
to begin with.
The full filing is below.