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Cal. Court: No Right to Data from Police License Plate Cameras

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on May 08, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last year, the ACLU filed a records request with the Los Angeles Police Department for a week's worth of data gleaned from 242 cameras that are designed to scan license plates. Was everyone in L.A. County suspected of a crime? How long was this information stored? Was it cross referenced with over information? Could it be used to track people around the county?

All legitimate questions -- but questions that will have to wait for another day, apparently, as a California appellate court ruled that the ACLU doesn't have a right to that information.

A Statutory Issue

After losing at trial, the ACLU, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, appealed to the Second District Court of Appeal for a writ of mandate compelling the trial court to compel the LAPD to produce data from the cameras. (LAPD was willing to divulge the "policies and guidelines" of the program, but not the data collected.)

The Court of Appeal, like the trial court, concluded that data from these cameras fell under an exception to the general requirement to divulge public records. This exception applies to records of police investigations.

As you might expect, plaintiffs contended there was no "investigation" going on; indeed, the entire purpose of the cameras was to start investigations. Nice try, but the California Supreme Court has a ready answer in prior case law; namely, that the statute exempting disclosure "does not distinguish between investigations to determine if a crime has been or is about to be committed and those that are undertaken once criminal conduct is apparent."

Plus, said the Court of Appeal, there's an "investigation" in the sense that the license plate scanners are supposed to check scanned plates against a "hot list" of plates associated with suspected crimes. (No word on what happens, though, when the scanner finds a plate that isn't on the hot list but nevertheless is reported stolen, or even has a lapsed registration.)

Let's Avoid This Altogether

Addressing the deeper policy problem -- namely, that lots of license plates are being scanned all the time and retained somewhere, to be used somehow -- the Court of Appeal wasn't very concerned. Apparently disagreeing with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and "mosaic" theory, the Court of Appeal said there would be no privacy problem if the LAPD "hypothetically deploy[ed] human patrol units to photograph every license plate they pass during a specific period on a specific route in order to later compare those photographs against a hot list of license plates associated with suspected crimes."

Ultimately, the Court decided not to weigh in on a complex privacy issue and instead decided the case based on the statute. The California Supreme Court, when it hears this case (and it will!), may decide to exercise the same restraint.

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