The ACLU of Virginia made public today a letter sent last week to the Town of Ashland Mayor and Town Council. The letter congratulates these key officials on their recent vote to reject a proposal by the Town’s police department that would have allowed it to retain, for up to 24-hours, license plate data acquired using automated license plate readers (ALPRs).
“As the Town of Ashland recognized, Virginians do not need to give up their liberty to secure their safety,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. “The Town’s decision reaffirms the basic American principle that important policy decisions affecting the rights and liberty of the people should be made in a transparent and open process that includes their voices. We are hopeful that the Town’s action will serve as a model for good governance throughout the Commonwealth.”
ALPRs can be mounted on police cars or stationary objects to automatically record every license plate that comes within their field of vision — with the capability to record thousands of license plates per minute. Though ALPRs can serve valid law enforcement purposes, such as aiding the search for stolen vehicles and assisting in identifying vehicles as part of an Amber Alert, the potential for misuse is real.
“Some law enforcement agencies in Virginia are using ALPR data to build a vast database of vehicle locations that can be used to determine where you go and when – whether you go to a church, a political event, or a therapist,” said Gastañaga. “Unless they have a reason to believe that you’re doing something illegal, these are things that the government has no business knowing. Especially in light of abuses we’ve seen at the federal level with NSA surveillance of innocent Americans, we commend the Town’s decision to reign in the use of this surveillance technology by their local police.”
The Ashland Police Department has reportedly also purchased police body-mounted cameras. The ACLU of Virginia letter sent to town officials last week also addressed the proper use of these devices and suggested policies that can be put in place to ensure that they both protect law enforcement from false accusations of abuse and protect the public from police misconduct.
“Devices such as ALPRs and police body-mounted cameras, indeed many surveillance devices, can be used to keep us safe,” said Gastañaga. “But, this technology can also be abused. We call on law enforcement and lawmakers throughout the Commonwealth to ensure that proper privacy, accountability, and transparency policies are in place before such technology is deployed,” she concluded.