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Virginia Sheriffs’ Association
The Voice of Virginia’s Sheriffs & Deputies

April 8, 2015 Op-Ed from The Richmond Times-Dispatch:

A federal fugitive recently abducted his two children from their mother’s home in the Northeast and headed south for Mexico on I-95. A License Plate Reader (LPR) captured the fugitive’s license plate information as he drove through Maryland. That state recently passed legislation allowing law enforcement to maintain LPR data for up to one year.

But, two weeks after the abduction, when law enforcement requested Virginia’s LPR data to try and locate the vehicle, the Virginia State Police could not provide assistance. They have to purge their LPR data immediately. It took more than six weeks until the children were finally discovered in Florida, in the company of a known felon.

Time and time again, LPRs have proved to be invaluable tools for law enforcement officials and have consistently demonstrated success in protecting the safety of our citizens across the commonwealth, and nationwide. In 2013, LPR data history allowed the Cobb County Police Department in California to locate and later charge two suspects involved in a murder case. In 2011, members of a local crime group were located with LPRs in Prince William County after the theft and robbery of nearly $12 million across five states.

Despite their value in protecting our citizens, the 2015 Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that ties the hands of law enforcement.

House Bill 1673 and Senate Bill 965 drastically limit the use of LPRs and other emerging technologies. Recognizing early on in the General Assembly session that the use of technology by law enforcement raises complex public safety and privacy concerns, Governor McAuliffe and Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, urged the legislature to refer all law enforcement technology bills to the Secure Commonwealth Panel to be studied by experts and stakeholders. Unfortunately, the legislature chose to act precipitously, leaving the governor no option but to amend the bills and try to strike a common-sense balance.

One of the governor’s amendments to the LPR bills sets a 60-day data-retention period for all law enforcement agencies in the commonwealth. This is more restrictive than policies and practices currently in place in localities in Virginia, as well as nationwide, and represents a significant compromise. Maryland, with support from the ACLU, recently passed legislation to allow LPR data to be retained for up to one year. New York maintains the data for five years or more. Some states, like Texas and California, have no statewide regulation on LPRs. In Virginia, there is variation by jurisdiction. Prince William and Arlington only retain their data for six months. Alexandria keeps it for two years. Montgomery, Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince George counties keep the information for one year.

Opponents are blitzing the media to incite fear that the governor’s amendments do not provide enough privacy protection.

There is clearly misinformation about the data LPRs capture and how it can be used. LPRs do not collect personally identifiable information. When an LPR scans, collects and stores license plate information, it cannot be de-coded until it is run separately against a DMV database, for which access is strictly regulated by state law. If the database is inappropriately accessed or information is misused, cases are reported to the Virginia State Police. At the time of this writing, the Virginia State Police have received no such reports.

McAuliffe’s amendments will also alleviate the LPR bills’ vast overreach. By reaching beyond LPRs and limiting all surveillance technology, the bill would seriously affect the ability to utilize courthouse security, jail security, body-worn or in-car police cameras, as well as many other types of technology that protect Virginians every day.

During a time when the media and the public are scrutinizing the actions of law enforcement and correctional officers, it is astonishing that the commonwealth would limit the use of surveillance technologies that have proved invaluable in protecting citizens from unconstitutional interactions with law enforcement officers.

There is always a delicate balance between public safety and individual rights to privacy — however, the governor’s amendments achieve the appropriate balance. But, if the legislation remains in its current form, the balance will be tipped, and public safety will be severely compromised.

Michael R. Doucette is commonwealth’s attorney for the City of Lynchburg; contact him at [email protected].

Brian K. Roberts is sheriff of Brunswick County; contact him at [email protected].

Stephan M. Hudson is chief of police in Prince William County; contact him at [email protected].