Virginia Court Says License Plate Tracking Is Legal

The Newspaper

There are no limits on a private individual or government agency that seeks to track Virginia motorists by photographing their license plates and storing the information in a database. That was the ruling last month of a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge who rejected the contention that automated license plate readers (ALPR or ANPR in Europe) violate state data protection laws.

“There is one salient issue that this court must decide,” Judge Robert J. Smith wrote in his November 18 ruling. “If a license plate reader is personal information, then the Fairfax County Police Department has violated the act.”  

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit contending the county government’s use of ALPR cameras to record the movements of all county residents for up to a year violated Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act. The activist group cited a 2013 state attorney general ruling (view ruling) that found the “passive” use of license plate cameras violated this statute.

Judge Smith disagreed with the applicability of the attorney general’s ruling and found no case law anywhere at the state or federal level dealing with the question. So the judge reasoned that a license plate has no relation to the identity of an individual person.

“In the case of a social security number, the information leads leads directly to an individual,” Judge Smith wrote. “A license plate number leads directly to a motor vehicle. By referring to other databases the license plate number can lead the researcher to the owner of the vehicle and nothing more. Even after determining the owner of a vehicle there is nothing more that can be determined. A license plate does not tell the researcher where the person is, what the person is doing, or anything else about the person.”

The ACLU argued that tracking a license plate can reveal a great deal about an individual by showing which doctor he drives to, where he worships or what groups he belongs to. This was not persuasive to the court.

“It is unlikely that information that does not have a privacy interest could be classified as personal information,” Judge Smith. “Notwithstanding the other arguments of counsel, once the issue of whether a license plate is personal information is decided in the negative, there is no material issue of fact and the analysis need go no further.”

With that, the ACLU’s suit was thrown out. A copy of the ruling is available in a 500k PDF file at the source link below.

Source:  Neal v. Fairfax County Police (Fairfax County, Virginia Circuit Court, 11/18/2016)

3 thoughts on “Virginia Court Says License Plate Tracking Is Legal

  1. Obviously simple-minded and fallacious reasoning went into that ruling. Maybe the Supreme Court will do the right thing, though I won’t hold my breath.

    If I had my way, citizens across the country, or maybe just in a few states or counties to begin with, would all remove the license plates from their cars in a mass protest.

    1. “…would all remove the license plates from their cars in a mass protest.”

      That’s a good idea… but it’s hard to get Americans to even boycott the enemy (or not vote), let alone actually do something.

      They’re going to have to starve for a few days before they do a thing. (and then most of the idiots will barbeque their neighbor rather than joining forces with them)

      It’s sad that there are so many morons in this country, but man of them will wise-up quickly when they have to. A lot of it is learned idiocy and laziness.

      1. A mass awakening is badly needed.

        The one thing people need to learn is that centralized government power is the most dangerous thing in the world. In the 20th Century it killed more innocent people than common criminals or terrorists ever could have, and that’s not even counting those killed in civil or international wars. If we must have government, it should be as small, weak, and decentralized as it can possibly be made, because power corrupts.

        This message need to be explained to as many people as possible. If they don’t listen, then they’ll just have to learn the hard way, as you mention.

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