License plate tracking debate simmers in Minnesota

5:50 AM, Jun 13, 2013   |    comments
Camera for automated license plate reader
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The controversy over the NSA's collection of bulk phone records has plenty of parallels in Minnesota, including one that state lawmakers wrestled with during the 2013 session.

They debated, but never resolved, the issue of how long law enforcement agencies should be allowed to keep license plate tracking data for cars that are not connected to any crimes.

"They are tracking you as if they were following you, even though they don't have to follow you," Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, told KARE.

"They shouldn't be following people for no reason at all."
He's talking about automated license plate readers, or ALPRs, used by some agencies, including the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments.

The cameras, some mounted on moving patrol cars and others fixed on poles, grab photos of license plates of passing cars. The ALPR employs character recognition technology to convert the image to a license plate number.

That number is then automatically fed into several law enforcement computer databases to determine if the plate is connected to a crime. The officer can receive an instantaneous alert that the plate is linked to an ongoing investigation, belongs to a stolen car or a parking ticket scofflaw.

"The police make the argument if there's a crime in progress we want to know where that crime is. And the license plate readers are very good for that," Samuelson said.

"I just think if the government doesn't need the data, why are they holding it? Why are they collecting it?" Samuelson remarked.

Law enforcement agencies , under current law, can hold onto that data, which includes the date, time of day, location and direction of travel of the vehicles. The data is stored on all the plates scanned, not just the ones that resulted in positive hits on a police database.

Currently both the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis store their data on plates not connected to crimes for 90 days before destroying it. The Minnesota State Patrol, which has only one vehicle equipped with ALPR cameras, destroys its data in 24 hours on plates not connected to an investigation.

The Senate and House could not reach an agreement on how long that data should be stored. The Senate's version of the bill would've required police to purge it after 90 days, while the House version would've put that number at zero days.

In other words, under the House version, if a plate came back clean from the automated data search, the record of that car's location, date and direction of travel would be deleted and no longer searchable by police or members of the public.

The session ended without any resolution on the issue.  The chief author of the House Bill, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg of Lakeville, said she would continue to support the House position.

"Most people would be stunned to know how much data about our private lives is being gathered and stored by various entities out there," Rep. Holberg told KARE.

"This is one of those issues that Republicans and Democrats can come together on, because privacy is something all people value."

Treated at Private Data

Typically records of police activity are considered open to the public, to help ensure that the constitutional rights of individuals against unreasonable searches are being respected.

But the State of Minnesota made a new exception when it comes to license plate tracking data.  In a special ruling issued in March, Commissioner of Administration Spencer Cronk deemed that license plate tracking records will be treated as private data under the state's open records laws.

Roughly translated, his ruling says that only law enforcement personnel and the owner of the vehicle are entitled to receive a copy of the data. Those data requests are typically processed in a week to ten days time.

Prior to Cronk's ruling third parties could buy copies of the license plate tracking data from the government agencies that have collected it, because it wasn't considered "investigative data" under law.

"That meant any company, or a private detective or even a criminal could harvest that data and figure out what your movements and routines are," Samuelson said.

The temporary ruling is in effect until 2015, based on the assumption lawmakers will put the changes into state law by then.

Case in Point

KARE reporter John Croman requested a copy of his license plate tracking record from the Minneapolis Police.

The police search revealed that he drove across the Broadway Avenue bridge over the Mississippi river at 5:11 p.m. on April 7, 2013.

"Why should they put John Croman in position of being one of the usual suspects?" Samuelson said.

"And whether you have trouble with that or not really comes down to one simple question; how much do you trust the government?"

Rich Neumeister, a privacy expert and longtime citizen lobbyist at the State Capitol, said it's troubling that police agencies are using a tool designed for spotting stolen cars to gather data on the movement of citizens who aren't suspected of any crimes.

In response to a data request from Neumeister, the City of Minneapolis said that, during the month of April, Minneapolis ALPRs successfully scanned and entered 580,000 license plate numbers.

In that same month those automated queries produced 9,700 hits in the various criminal databases. In other words, 1.6 percent of all plate numbers entered into the system by the ALPRs were connected to an active investigation or a chronic parking violator.

"What troubles me is that many of the police agencies, including Minneapolis, still don't have a written policy for how the data will be used," Neumeister told KARE. 

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All rights rerserved. This materrial may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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