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License Plate Scanners: Are They Legal?

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on July 18, 2013 11:50 AM

Law enforcement officers may be scanning your license plate the next time you hit the road. While critics are raising privacy concerns, the practice is perfectly legal.

These license plate scanners are designed to photograph passing cars and "analyze their license numbers" by checking them against a growing database of vehicles involved in criminal investigations, reports Reuters.

The ACLU's new report on license plate scanners reveals even more provocative details.

ACLU Report

In a report summarizing the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) 2012 investigation into license plate scanners, the group found that the cameras intended to capture criminal activity are instead gathering data from "all the passing cars," reports Reuters.

In one example, over a period of a year, more than 700,000 license plate images were stored by cameras in Burbank, Illinois, the ACLU found. But only 0.3 percent of those plates returned a match for a criminal investigation.

If this sort of surveillance leaves the other 99.7 percent of innocent drivers to be surveilled without probable cause, why are plate scanners legal?

No Expectation of Privacy

Unlike the recent hubbub about tracking customers using WiFi in retail stores, license plate scanners are used by government agents, so their use does implicate the Fourth Amendment.

Normally, an officer would need a warrant and/or probable cause to search your vehicle, even by taking pictures. But the courts have determined time and again that drivers lack a reasonable expectation of privacy on public roads.

Even though drivers may not expect their cars to be watched by the digital eye of a high-speed camera, a car's license plate is exposed to anyone on a public road, and is not reasonably expected to be private.

Call for Change in Laws

Despite the fact that license plate scanners are legal, the ACLU and others argue that they shouldn't be, citing jurisdictions like Mesquite, Texas, and Yonkers, New York, where license plate information is stored by police indefinitely, reports Reuters.

Especially in areas were data is stored in perpetuity, the ACLU is worried about how law enforcement could potentially use the lion's share of innocent data that license plate scanners collect.

The ACLU's report, entitled "You Are Being Tracked," includes recommendations to state and local governments to adopt new legislation regarding the level of suspicion needed to scan a car's plates and how long plate data can be kept in a database.

Time will tell whether the ACLU's worries and recommendations about license plate scanners will drive state and local legislators to take action.

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