Should the Government Track Your Movements?
A battle over license-plate readers is brewing in Virginia.
A. Barton Hinkle | December 28, 2016
If you are walking down a public street, should you expect people not to see you? Of course not. But suppose someone decides to follow you—and to make records noting the time and place of your movements. Is that the same thing as simply noticing you happen to be out and about? No. Most people would agree the second case differs from the first.
Yet a Fairfax judge unfortunately failed to pick up on that distinction recently when he ruled in favor of the county's use of license plate readers. Fairfax's police department uses automated license plate readers that can scan 3,600 plates per minute. The county compares the plates to a hot list of stolen cars and other vehicles that might have been involved in a crime. It also stores the image of every plate, along with the date, time and location of each plate recording, for 364 days.
Three years ago Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) issued an opinion informing law enforcement agencies around the state that such activity is impermissible. It's one thing to use the cameras to hunt down a specific vehicle. It's another thing entirely to hoover up data about countless ordinary citizens going about their daily business, and then keep it indefinitely. The use of license-plate readers during an immediate threat to public safety is acceptable, Cuccinelli said, but their passive use during routine patrols is not, and neither is the practice of storing data from them. The need for collecting the information should be established before they are used, he wrote.