License plate scanner photo

Security guards at the Arden Fair mall in Sacramento see this visual interface after digitally scanning a license plate.Courtesy of Steve Reed

Under pressure from law enforcement lobbyists and private industry, a California lawmaker has abandoned his effort to restrict how personal information on the whereabouts of drivers generated from high-tech license-plate scanners can be collected and stored in a database.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, proposed the bill [PDF] in March after California Watch reported that a private company had stockpiled more than a half-billion records on drivers from the license-plate readers.

The scanner is affixed to the outside of patrol cars and captures the geographic location of motorists along with the date and time, regardless of whether the individual is a wanted criminal, a fact that alarms privacy groups. The Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco said it was disappointed by the bill’s fate.

Simitian said in an interview that he was encouraged when the proposed legislation survived two committees, but any momentum had shifted once it reached the Senate floor, where Simitian realized he didn’t have the votes. 

“I’m disappointed but not surprised by the lack of sensitivity to privacy concerns on the part of public entities, including law enforcement,” Simitian said. “This is not uncommon in my experience. I think for many of these organizations … they see privacy as a fairly abstract right.”

Police rely on an in-car alert to inform them if a scanned license plate is connected to a stolen vehicle or if the driver is wanted for some reason. But historical data also can be searched to determine where a driver has been and when, an alluring feature for criminal investigators and intelligence analysts.

Livermore-based Vigilant Video touts the intelligence value of its National Vehicle Location Service, and by earlier this year, some 1,200 new law enforcement users were being signed up to use the system every month. Shawn Smith, president and founder of Vigilant, said police in California alone have conducted some 80,000 queries of the service with 35,000 positive auto identifications.

Smith said he wouldn’t be surprised if some form of legislation regulating license-plate readers surfaced in the future, but it didn’t seem to him that the law enforcement community had been asked for feedback before Simitian introduced the bill. He said success stories involving the technology were handed over to police, who in turn used them to convince senators of the public safety benefits.

“I think at the end of the day, it made a big difference,” Smith said of the stories. “I don’t think it did in Senator Simitian’s mind, but it did in the minds of his colleagues.”

The examples are endless, Smith said. Immigration agents have used the National Vehicle Location Service to track down illegal immigrants. The district attorney in Los Angeles has used it to locate difficult-to-find witnesses. Police in Long Beach used it to find an identity theft suspect who was targeting veterans – she eventually was captured in Chicago after fleeing California.   

“Although proponents would have you believe that this is a privacy bill, the fact is that there is no expectation of privacy in a public-displayed license plate,” several California law enforcement groups wrote to the state Senate earlier this year.

Simitian said he did previously work with the California Highway Patrol on rules for plate readers and knew what the views of police were, but he said the latest bill “turned out to be a bigger lift than I anticipated.”

Data in the system comes from both police, who turn it over from their own plate readers for nationwide searches, and auto repossession companies that work with banks to hunt down delinquent borrowers. Civilian fleets of “scout cars” armed with license-plate readers are used to compile data on behalf of private industry.   

Simitian wanted to limit to 60 days the length of time law enforcement agencies and companies like Vigilant could store such data, but exceptions would have been made for information needed in felony investigations. His legislation also called for blocking private businesses from selling or giving the data to anyone who is not a law enforcement officer and making the data available to police only with a search warrant.

Vigilant says searches of the National Vehicle Location Service already are restricted to approved law enforcement officials, but Simitian’s bid would nonetheless have prevented police in California from turning over data generated by their own scanners to any entity not engaged in law enforcement, such as private companies.

Many law enforcement agencies already have guidelines for how data from plate readers can be used. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina, for instance, told California Watch in January that it destroys irrelevant records after 180 days and cannot conduct nationwide searches through the National Vehicle Location Service. 

The senator said he offered to compromise with law enforcement, but police still pushed for access to data collected by private companies.

“Essentially, law enforcement’s argument was, ‘We think private-sector entities ought to be able to stockpile information on law-abiding citizens, and that information should be available to law enforcement upon request without a warrant or any probable cause,’ ” he said.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.