Privacy Law

DC Police Scan and Store License Plate Images; ACLU Suggests Need for a Warrant


Police in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs are using more than 250 cameras to scan license plates, and in D.C. they’re holding on to the information for three years.

Police say the information can be used to find stolen cars and fleeing criminals, but some privacy advocates are raising concerns, the Washington Post reports. The story quotes Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union’s technology and liberty program.

“That’s quite a large database of innocent people’s comings and goings,” Stanley said. “The government has no business collecting that kind of information on people without a warrant.”

Public agencies across the nation are scanning license plate numbers and storing the information, but the issue is particularly important in D.C. because it has the highest concentration of license plate readers in the nation, the story says. A survey last year found that 37 percent of the largest police departments in the nation are using the technology.

Police can use the readers to spot suspects by entering a license plate number in the database and finding out where a vehicle has traveled. They can also program the database to alert detectives when a license plate passes a detector.

In one instance, Northern Virginia police used the technology to track down a woman reported missing by her husband, the story says. Police found her in an apartment and knocked on the door; she was in the bedroom at the time. In other instances, police send more patrol cars to nightclubs when the cameras locate cars of rival gang members.

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