Police don't have to share license plate data, judge rules

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An L.A. County Superior Court judge ruled that the Los Angeles Police Department and L.A. County Sheriff's Department do not have to share license plate data with the public.  The data is gathered through automatic scanners. 

License plate scanners came to local police departments a few years ago. They're essentially cameras equipped to read license plate numbers and send them to a database. They're intended as a quick way for police to scan for stolen cars, cars involved in Amber Alerts, and to connect a license plate to a crime scene.

In a lawsuit, The ACLU of Southern California asked what happens to all the other license plates collected. They requested a week's worth of license plate data from August 2012, during Ramadan. The group is concerned there's no way to tell whether police are targeting certain ethnic groups or neighborhoods for blanket surveillance.

LAPD and LASD, argued, however, that being required to release such data would compromise its usefulness. In court filings, they say a criminal could request all data about his or her own license plate--and thereby figure out whether police can connect his or her plate to a crime. 

L.A. County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant sided with the police agencies, saying the public good in keeping the data unpublicized outweighed any public good in sharing the information.

Peter Bibring, Director of Police Practices and Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU, said LAPD and LASD collectively gather data on about 3 million license plates each week. He said the ruling sets a bad precedent for effective public oversight of police surveillance programs in general.

"Whether it's public video camera collection, information from social media, call information, all of that would be insulated from public disclosure," Bibring said. "I'm sure police could operate more effectively if nobody had any idea what kind of techniques they used, what kind of surveillance they used, but that's inconsistent with democracy."

The ACLU has not decided whether it will appeal the decision.

A spokesperson for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department said the department cannot comment on the ruling until the judge's decision is finalized. The LAPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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