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Police License Plate Scans May Be Disclosed

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 28, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Did you hear the one about the guy who was caught cheating when a traffic cam snapped his photo with another woman in the car?

That's not this case, but it has a cross-over issue. Los Angeles police use high-speed cameras to scan license plates and then catch drivers who are involved in crimes. They scan about 1.8 million license plates a week.

But what to do about the privacy of all those people who are not criminals? That's the question the state Supreme Court sent to a trial judge to consider.

ACLU v. Superior Court

In the case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Supreme Court considered the ACLU's demand to see records collected on the police scanners. The automated license plate reader system, ALPR, uses high-speed, computer-controlled cameras mounted on fixed structures and patrol cars.

It captures images of license plates and then checks them against license plate numbers associated with various crimes, plus child abductions and outstanding warrants. Then it alerts police when there is a match.

The ACLU requested the records under the California Public Records Act, but the police denied it. A trial judge sided with the L.A. police and sheriff's departments, saying the disclosure would jeopardize investigations and public concerns.

"Members of the public would be justifiably concerned about LAPD or LASD releasing information regarding the specific locations of their vehicles on specific dates and times to anyone," the judge said.

Editing Required

The Supreme Court agreed, but said the trial judge should consider whether the public's privacy interests could be protected by redacting certain information or making it anonymous.

"We remind the trial court and the parties, however, that if the anonymized or redacted data are ultimately released, the courts may exercise no restraint on how the data may be used apart from the restrictions placed on its dissemination under Civil Code section 1798.90.5 et seq.," the unanimous court said.

That section prohibits public agencies from selling, sharing or transferring the data "except to another public agency, and only as otherwise permitted by law."

Albert Gidari, director of the Privacy Center for Internet & Society at Stanford Law School, agreed with the decision. He also told the Northern California Record that California leads the nation in protecting ALPR privacy.

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