California Supreme Court remands case involving license plate readers

By Dee Thompson | Sep 27, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Supreme Court has largely upheld, but remanded the American Civil Liberties Union's license plate reader data request case. 

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California (ACLU) v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County involves police investigations and an individual’s privacy rights. 

The underlying case involves the Los Angeles Police Department and the city's sheriff’s department want to use an automated license plate reader [APLR] “ in order to locate vehicles linked to crimes under investigation. The ALCU of Southern California and Electronic Frontier Foundation [collectively, petitioners] filed a request under the California Public Records Act [CPRA] for all ALPR data collected during a one week period” according to the state high court decision filed Aug. 31.

The police refused to turn over the data to the ACLU. The district court agreed with its decision, and the ACLU appealed. The state high court partially agrees. It remanded the case to see if a way could be found for the data to be anonymized, in order to protect individual privacy while giving the ACLU the data they seek.

Albert Gidari, director of the Privacy Center for Internet & Society at Stanford Law School, told the Northern California Record the court made the right call, but noted, “Yes, the California Supreme Court balanced the public's right to disclosure with privacy concerns. But it is ironic in another sense. If the license plate data is so sensitive, why does the government get to collect it in the first place and view it any time without legal process?”  

Gidari said California leads the nation in ALPR privacy because the state requires cities to publish a privacy policy regarding ALPR data. However, Gidari said, “These policies are opaque when it comes to what the government can do with the data. The case describes investigative uses, but we ought to know which other agencies have accessed the data, if any, and for what purposes.”

How to manage technology is a key question to be addressed. 

“The reason the ACLU didn't challenge the lawfulness of the collection in the first place, no doubt, is because the license plate is visible to all in the public space," Gidari said. "Any driver assumes the risk that their license plate will be seen and therefore collected when they drive or park in a public place. You can't invade privacy in public so to speak. But with the advent of smart cities and sensors everywhere, it is reasonable to ask whether there ought to be a tort of public disclosure of public facts instead of private facts. 

"We may implicitly consent to be seen when we go into the public domain and assume the risk that our picture will be taken or our presence noted, but with the Internet, can it be said that we also consent to the widespread distribution of that information, its searchability and retrievability, and its persistence on the Net?  We may yet see new tort claims arise.” 

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