Every year, you have one bill that you never anticipated when session began. Sometimes, this “late-breaking” legislation may be the most significant that you file.
In my case, SB 670 is that bill. It was inspired by the usage of “License Plate Readers” or “LPR’s,” which have been distributed to police departments, especially in northern Virginia, under the rubric of “anti-terrorism.”
LPR’s read license plates and download that information for future use by the police. By issuing a query for a particular license plate (“ZWV 3764″ is our family vehicle), the authorities can grab data on where and when your vehicle was in a particular place, say a shopping mall, a school, or maybe a political rally.
So how exactly does this information stop terrorism? And why is this personal data being collected on people who are simply living?
All these questions were posed by Tom Jackman’s article on January 16 which drew attention to LPR’s and the fact that our police departments were holding reams of data about our personal lives, without any legal justification.
Of course, the practice of LPR’s turns the traditional Anglo-American rule of criminal procedure on its head: historically, the government has needed a reason to investigate you; now, that need is just assumed and data collection ensures.
Immediately following the Jackman article, I drafted SB 670, which is now pending in the Senate. A similar bill has been filed in the House by Delegate Rich Anderson (R-Woodbridge). The purpose of these bills is to limit the use of LPR’s by requiring police departments to purge the data once it’s been collected, unless it’s related to a pending criminal investigation.
(I’ve been in discussions with NOVA police departments about the correct time period for holding LPR data. So far the suggestions have ranged from 24 hours to six months).
Our legislation has attracted a motley crowd of advocates, ranging from the ACLU to former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli who wrote an opinion last year questioning the ability of police departments to hold this data.
Without a doubt, the support for our legislation is directly related to the level of alarm felt by Americans at the increasing scrutiny by the government on our personal activities. Personally, I am disturbed by this trend (most recently reflected in the policies of the NSA) and I’m not afraid to push back.
Anyway, SB 670 is set to be heard in General Laws next week. There are some amendments that will need to be made, and I’m happy to get feedback from police and prosecutors who might have a limited use for LPR’s. But the onus must be on government to justify its collecting data on its citizens, not the other way around.
Either way, it’s good to fight for “the right to be left alone.”