Conn. cops, ACLU clash over plate-scan database
The length of time police agencies could retain license plate information was the center of arguments before the legislative Public Safety and Security Committee
By Ken Dixon
HARTFORD, Conn. — The length of time law enforcement agencies could retain license plate information was the center of arguments Tuesday before the legislative Public Safety and Security Committee.
Local police chiefs want to hang on to the information for five years or more, because they say it's an important crime-fighting tool.
But opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, called the collection — known as automated license plate recognition — a threat to constitutional freedoms and asked the committee to require a much shorter retention period of days instead of years.
Carroll J. Hughes, Capitol lobbyist for the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said that 64 out of 100 police departments use the program, in which officers use photo equipment to record license plates. Data includes global positioning. The information is used for a variety of investigations from stolen vehicles to Amber Alerts and long-term probes.
"Their value to police work is very significant," Hughes said.
Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, said that the technology has stirred up a wide range of interests.
"I know a lot of the technology out there is new," Dargan said, noting that some want the information destroyed within 15 days, while others want retention of five years or more.
"There seems to be a big issue between those two numbers," Dargan said.
"The larger the database, the more accurate the description of a vehicle is going to be over a long period of time," Hughes replied.
David McGuire, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said the equipment can be used to entrap people.
"While we commend the committee for taking up this important issue, we must oppose this legislation because it does not go nearly far enough to protect the privacy of millions of innocent drivers in the state of Connecticut," he said.
"When the system matches a license plate scan to a vehicle listed as stolen, unregistered or uninsured, it produces an alert so that a police officer can pull the vehicle over," McGuire said. "Used in this way, (automated license plate recognition) systems are an important, helpful and powerful tool for law enforcement. The trouble arises when license plate scan data is collected, pooled and archived for months or years, storing a detailed and vivid picture of the movements of drivers who are not even suspected of doing anything wrong."
Kept for years in databases, plate data can create a method for "retroactive surveillance of innocent people without a warrant, without probable cause and without any form of judicial oversight," he said.
McGuire recalled that through the state Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU-CT found that between 2009 and 2012, 10 towns in central Connecticut amassed 6 million plate scans, including Newington, which had 612,673 scans in a town with only 29,208 registered vehicles.
"A national database maintained by a private contractor and aggregated from private and law-enforcement sources now holds more than 1.8 billion scans," he said. "It is reportedly growing by 100 million scans a month. There is growing unease across the country about this unbridled and unregulated accumulation of data."
McGuire said that six states already regulate the procedure's use and others, including Massachusetts, are considering a 48-hour retention limit. State Police get rid of the data after 90 days. He asked the committee to set a 14-day limit, except in cases of active investigations.
The bill, as drafted, contains a five-year retention limit, but the bill will be subject to revisions and debate within the committee, which has a March 18 deadline.
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