By Shane Trejo
A bill introduced in the New York Assembly to put strict limitations on the use of automated license plate reader systems (ALPRs) by the state was drastically altered in committee. The new version of the bill only applies restrictions to private individuals.
Introduced by Asm. Jeffrey Dinowitz on Feb. 13, Assembly Bill 5233 (A5233) was originally intended to ban law enforcement in the state from using ALPRs as a general location-tracking tool of millions of drivers, and would have banned the sharing of legitimately-obtained license plate data with outside sources. It would have also prohibited their use by non-law enforcement agencies.
However, the bill was severely altered by an amendment in the Assembly Consumer Affairs and Protection Committee before being referred to the Assembly Codes Committee, where it stands now. The new language removes all provisions pertaining to law enforcement and state government officials. As it now stands, the bill would only limit ALPR use by private individuals and companies.
The amended version of A5233 would maintain the status quo when it comes to law enforcement use if license plate readers in New York. That means absolutely no limits on how police use ALPRs and what they can do with the information they collect. According to the New York ACLU, “many localities in New York State are not adopting the policies necessary to safeguard the collection, use, sharing and retention of location information.”
Although A5233 was changed to remove most of its effect, its companion bill is still alive and unaltered in the Senate. Senate Bill 7245 (S7245) was introduced by Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) on Apr. 11. It reads, in part:
It shall be unlawful for any business, individual, partnership, corporation, association, or state or local government non-law enforcement entity to use an automatic license plate reader system.
In addition, S7245 contains provisions that apply directly to law enforcement, restricting their use of ALPR as well. It reads, in part:
Captured plate data obtained… shall not be used or shared for any other purpose and shall not be preserved for more than one hundred eighty days except pursuant to a preservation or disclosure request under this subdivision, or a warrant.
Furthermore, S7245 would mandate law enforcement agencies to destroy evidence gathered with ALPR unless they “apply for a court order for disclosure of captured plate data” while offering “specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the captured plate data is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal or missing persons investigation.” Law enforcement would be forced to destroy the evidence after 14 days, or after their application is denied.
Reporting requirements would also be required under S7245 with annual reports showing the number of license plates scanned, the number of disclosure requests, the number of ALPR being operated by the agency, and other relevant information. Individuals who have their rights violated by ALPR could sue for civil damages “of not less than one hundred and not more than one thousand dollars for each violation.”
Although S7245 is in tact at the present moment, it still must pass the Senate Consumer Protection Committee before it can receive a vote in the full Senate. With the Assembly bill so drastically altered, it remains unclear if the Senate will even attempt to move S7245.
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), has been tracking the location of millions of cars for nearly eight years, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy. The secret domestic intelligence-gathering program “scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists.”
Most of these tracking systems are operated by state and local law enforcement agencies, but are paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database and is able to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself. In those few situations where ALPRs are operated by federal agencies, they’re generally done so with express approval of the legislature, and operational assistance from state or local law enforcement.
“No sharing of ALPR data means no federal license plate tracking program,” said Mike Maharrey of the Tenth Amendment Center. “More importantly, this limits government power and advances liberty on both the state and national level.”
The ALPR’s also known to capture photographs of vehicle occupants. An internal DEA memo obtained by the ACLU “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.’”
With the FBI rolling out facial a nationwide recognition program last fall, 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.
The bill would allow ALPRs to be used for some situations, such as identifying vehicles with outstanding parking violations or a failure to register. But, even that data couldn’t be shared with outside sources, such as the DEA, for its location-tracking program.
Passage of S7245 in its present form would represent a significant step towards ending the tracking of millions of people whose only crime is driving.