Privacy SOS

Virginia police say they found killer using license plate reader

This morning, the nation was horrified to discover that a Virginia local news reporter was shot dead, along with her cameraman, on live television. Hours later police released the name of the man they suspected as the killer. This afternoon, apparently after a police chase, the suspected killer shot himself and died.

Now one journalist is reporting that the police searching for the suspect found him by using an automated license plate reader. These devices, often mounted on top of police cars, take photographs of every license plate they pass by, and check those plate numbers against hot lists of people wanted by police. License plate readers also collect huge quantities of information about people suspected of no crime, creating massive databases containing the location histories of millions of ordinary people. Absent strict regulations requiring police to delete this information, license plate readers can be used to retroactively track the movements of every American driver, with no oversight or accountability.

In this case it appears as if the police added the suspect's name to the Virginia state police license plate reader hot list, and the machine alerted the officer to the presence of the suspect's car, jump-starting the police chase that ended with the suspect's suicide. That's a textbook success case for license plate readers, but I fear it will be used dishonestly to fight efforts to impose commonsense privacy rules.

If I was a betting person I would wager that license plate reader corporations and police departments nationwide will use this case to lobby against license plate tracking reforms. But doing so would fundamentally misrepresent the issues. Privacy advocates at the ACLU are not opposed to police using license plate readers to identify, in real time, people suspected of serious crimes like murder. The privacy bills supported by organizations like ours instead simply require police to delete non-derogatory information to ensure police aren't keeping detailed records of the movements of people suspected of no crimes.

You might soon hear police using this case as an example of why we cannot regulate license plate readers. But that's disingenuous. Privacy legislation like the License Plate Privacy Act, currently before the Massachusetts state legislature, would enable police to use the devices to find dangerous people while also preventing cops from keeping track of everyone else for no good reason.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.