Focus, Government, and Law

They know where you were — but maybe for only 48 hours

April 25, 2014
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LANSING — Legislation requiring police to delete license plate numbers collected by automatic high-speed cameras may be coming to Michigan.

Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, wants to restrict how long police can store license plate numbers from automatic license plate readers. Singh wants police to delete the data after 48 hours. There are no limits on how long the data is kept now.

The automatic license plate readers are placed on both patrol cars and stationary objects, such as road signs and traffic lights, and capture photos of passing vehicles’ license plates. After the photo is taken, the license plate number is stored in a database that can be accessed later by police if they need to see what vehicles were in the area at the time of a crime.

While the cameras are not that large, they are visible. They vary in size and shape; some are circular while others are rectangular.

Right now the use of the readers is unregulated.

Singh has introduced legislation to require that the data be erased after 48 hours if the information is not being used in a criminal case. He said he wants to make sure the data collected by police is erased at some time and to provide basic protection for citizens’ privacy.

The Michigan Sheriffs Association is opposed to the regulations. The cameras are extremely useful tools in cases of missing persons, homicides and many other instances, including terrorist cases, said Terrence Jungel, the association’s executive director.

Cameras are located in many areas in Michigan, including at the U.S. borders and on bridges all over the state. Jungel said the cameras are extremely successful in helping law enforcement place vehicles at scenes of crimes.

The cameras are not used for traffic violations, such as running red lights or speeding, but only for police investigations.

Right now, the license plate numbers caught on camera are stored in a database to which police have access. The numbers are stored without information about the drivers or vehicles attached to the plates, said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

The problem with erasing the collected data after only two days is that not all cases can be solved in 48 hours, Stevenson said. Sometimes crimes aren’t discovered until days after they are committed, meaning if law enforcement needed access to a license plate number stored in the database, it might already be deleted.

Later, if a clue or a crime is connected to a license plate number at the scene, police can check the database to see if the vehicle with that plate had been in that area. The database has even been able to help police solve cold cases, Stevenson said.

“License plate readers are valuable tools,” he said.

When a vehicle that has a connection with a case passes one of the cameras, police are alerted that the license plate has been spotted.

The ability to find a vehicle using license plate numbers has helped locate stolen vehicles and vehicles involved in missing person cases.

The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union strongly supports minimal storage of the information.

“We think the government shouldn’t store data about innocent civilians,” said Merissa Kovach, the organization’s field organizer.

The group believes license plate readers should be used only for ongoing investigations, and that law enforcement should not be able to share any of that information with anyone else, Kovach said. The cameras could be used to track a person across the state, since photos of the license plates are captured in different places, and that is one of the major concerns of the ACLU.

About 75 percent of police agencies in the U.S. used the readers in 2011, according to the ACLU National July 2013 report, “You Are Being Tracked.”

Other states have varying degrees of regulations. New Hampshire has completely forbidden the use of the cameras. Utah and Vermont require police to delete the saved data after a certain amount of time, varying from weeks to months.

The bill was discussed in the House Criminal Justice Committee in October.

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