LAPD: All Cars Are Part of Criminal Investigation

Barbara Boland
By Barbara Boland | March 26, 2014 | 12:34 PM EDT

If you drive a car in Los Angeles, your car is part of a vast criminal investigation, according to the L.A. Police Department and L.A. Sheriff's Department.

In briefs filed by the L.A. Police Department and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department they explained that “ALPR [technology that photos license plates] is directly related to criminal investigations” and that “all data is investigatory.”

“ALPR… cameras are not triggered by any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing; instead, they automatically and indiscriminately photograph all license plates (and cars) that come into view,” writes Derrick Broze. “This happens without an officer targeting a specific vehicle and without any level of criminal suspicion.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and ACLU of Southern California filed a suit against the L.A. Police Department and Sheriff’s Department requesting a week’s worth of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) data. They jointly filed suit over the departments’ failure to produce records related to the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs).

"Location-based information like license plate data can be very revealing," said EFF Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. "By matching your car to a particular time, date and location — and building a database of that information over time — law enforcement can learn where you work and live, what doctor you go to, which religious services you attend, and who your friends are. The public needs access to data the police actually have collected to be able to make informed decisions about how ALPR systems can and can't be used."

From EFF’s website:

Mounted on squad cars and telephone poles, these sophisticated camera systems read license plates and record the time, date, and location a particular car was encountered. EFF and the ACLU-SC filed requests with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department under the California Public Records Act seeking documents relating to policy and training on ALPRs, as well as a week's worth of ALPR data collected by the agencies in 2012.

“While the sheriff and police departments produced some materials, they failed to provide documents related to sharing information with other agencies, and neither agency has produced the data collected during the one-week period,” EFF states.

In its brief, the police and sheriff’s department state:

Releasing the subject ALPR data held by the Department would likewise ‘expose to the public the very sensitive investigative stages of determining whether a crime has been committed.’ 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... The very process of checking license plates against various law enforcement lists, whether done manually by the officer or automatically through ALPR technology, is intrinsically investigatory - to determine whether a crime may have been committed. The mere fact that ALPR data is routinely gathered and may not --initially or ever-- be associated with a specific crime is not determinative of its investigative nature.

The case was set to be heard on Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, but has been postponed until April.