California Cops Are Collecting Info on Millions of Drivers Who Have Done Nothing Wrong

Mother Jones – by Daniel Moattar

Law enforcement in four of California’s most populous counties is storing, searching, and sharing detailed records on millions of random drivers, according to a new report from the California State Auditor, a nonpartisan government agency. The audit, released last week, found major deficiencies—and possible lawbreaking—in police use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) in the California counties of Los Angeles, Fresno, Marin, and Sacramento.

The technology is frighteningly simple: cameras on police cars or roadsides can scan up to 2,000 license plates per minute, storing the plate number, the location, and the time the car was spotted. From there, an officer can easily pull other identifying information, like the driver’s name, address, and criminal history, all without a warrant—or even a supervisor’s sign-off. The result is that drivers are being tracked and recorded by the police, whether or not they’ve done anything wrong. In San Diego, the state audit found that 0.04 percent of scanned plates were actually under suspicion when scanned. A 2016 CityLab report pegged that at 0.02 percent in Marin County. In Los Angeles, the figure was 0.01 percent of 320 million images, all including timestamps and the driver’s exact location. In 2013, Mother Jones reported that, per the American Civil Liberties Union, just 47 of the million license plates scanned in Maryland “were even tentatively associated with actual serious crimes.”

Once a marginal technology, license plate scanners are now widespreadminimally regulated, and employed by everyone from mall cops to landlords, with reams of plate data floating around the web—thanks in part to cop-tech hawkers convincing police that license-plate monitoring has gone “from a nice-to-have luxury to a can’t-operate-without system.” And big corporations have gotten into the game: Vigilant Solutions, a private, for-profit law enforcement contractor that sells both license plate readers and the data they collect, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Motorola Solutions.

Less than a third of states have laws regulating ALPRs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2019, California lawmakers set a few restrictions on license plate scanners—but they only apply to the state highway patrol. Well over half of California’s law enforcement agencies use the technology, and auditors found that in Fresno, Marin, and Sacramento, police shared their records with thousands of other public agencies in 44 of 50 states. (All three were sending driver data to cops in Honolulu, one of the toughest cities for a California fugitive to drive to.)

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