Civil Rights Groups’ Court Win Affects How Pasadena Police Treat Data Collected Daily on City Streets

Published : Friday, September 8, 2017 | 5:48 AM

Pasadena police and civil rights advocates now await a lower court definition of the “middle ground” between respecting the privacy of citizens and protecting data collected by police in criminal investigations, after the California Supreme Court ruled late last week that data collected from Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) are not necessarily “investigative records” that law enforcement can keep secret.

The Court ruled that law enforcement agencies cannot keep secret all the license plate data gathered indiscriminately from millions of unwitting drivers.

The ruling affects Pasadena residents and workers because the Pasadena Police department has mounted Automatic License Plate Readers on a number of its patrol cars and routinely collects, and then saves, an estimated thousands of records daily on city streets.

Those records show the locations of vehicles in Pasadena and the times at which they were photographed at that location. When turned on, the ALPR’s capture the license plate of virtually every car in the vicinity of the police cruiser, whether parked or moving.

The ruling stemmed from the case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) against the Los Angeles Sheriff Department in early 2014. The ACLU earlier sought information on how the law enforcement agencies are using ALPRs to gather information about car owners. The two watchdog nonprofits argued in court that two named departments are illegally keeping quiet on how the information is used.

In response, the Sheriff’s Department claimed it can’t turn over the data to the ACLU because these were part of investigations.

ACLU said Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department collect about three million plate scans every week on average, and have a database of half a billion records.

The ACLU and EFF stressed in the lawsuit that law enforcement should come up with clearer regulations on the use of ALPR and the data collected using the system, after reviewing the records of nearly 600 state and local police departments across the country.

“This is a big win for transparency in California,” said lawyer Peter Bibring, Director of Police Practices at the ACLU Southern California. “The Supreme Court recognized that California’s sweeping public records exemption for police investigations doesn’t cover mass collection of data by police, like the automated scanning of license plates in this case. The Court also recognized that mere speculation by police on the harms that might result from releasing information can’t defeat the public’s strong interest in understanding how police surveillance impacts privacy.”

Kris Ockershauser, Board Member of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter, said the ACLU has been fighting for the past three years to have access to the ALPR data which is being collected routinely every day, and trying to learn about other surveillance technologies that police are using.

“It’s a serious consideration and getting access to records is a really good move,” Ockershauser said. “It should make for much more transparency.”

Lt. Tracey Ibarra of the Pasadena Police Department said the Department will comply with the ruling, but is awaiting to see the final decision from the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The Supreme Court ruling remanded the issue to the Superior Court with advice to “conduct a new balancing analysis – one that includes consideration of methods of “anonymization” that the ACLU and EFF have suggested in their lawsuit.

“The trial court is free to explore other methods of anonymization and redaction as well,” the ruling added.

“Obviously we will comply with a court order with public records request, but it’s going to be in alignment with current legal requirements with the Public Records Act,” Ibarra said. “In other words, say the information that has been requested is for an ongoing investigation [and] that the investigation as a whole is still restricted, then that information will be provided at the conclusion of the investigation.”

Ibarra also said retrieving extended information from ALPR data and preparing it for public access may be costly and much more labor-intensive.

“First of all, there’s no scope to what volume of information that would be asked will be unreasonable, so we define that,” Ibarra said, explaining that although most Public Records Acts requests are straightforward and free, requests for large volumes of ALPR data could be problemmatic. “Or you’re going to pay for it if you want to get that information. You’ve got to understand it’s going to take months worth of work.”

ALPRs are mounted on patrol cars and read all license plates seen by four cameras on each unit. Almost instantly, the system displays a graphic of the plate number and image of the vehicle on a dashboard-mounted monitor inside the cruiser, as well as the latitude, longitude, date and time of the vehicle’s sighting.

If the pictured vehicle has been reported stolen, a high alert voice alarm is sounded and a visual alert appears on the monitor inside the vehicle.

The Pasadena Police Department has been using them for several years since buying the first one with a federal grant.

In March, 2015, Pasadena officers using the ALPR spotted a car that was stolen from a parking garage on Cordova Street, recovered the vehicle and arrested the alleged thief in a matter of minutes.

blog comments powered by Disqus