Los Angeles Sheriff's Department Sued for Violating Privacy

May 28, 2013, by Okorie Okorocha

Alleging a massive and ongoing violation of public privacy, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed suit against both the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department.

The groups say that the lawsuit stems from the agencies' ongoing use of license plate-reading devices, which are affixed to patrol vehicles.
Our Los Angeles sexual harassment attorneys know that these tiny cameras are on constant alert, routinely scanning the license plates of passing vehicles and comparing them to criminal databases. The primary goal, police say, is to search for stolen vehicles or vehicles that are registered to those with felony warrants.

Police agencies have not been shy about praising the technology, saying that it allows them to catch more stolen vehicle suspects than they ever would on their own. The cameras also tabulate the exact location of the vehicle and the time at which it was recorded, which can allow officers to track suspects, even if they launch a search months or possibly years after the vehicle was spotted.

However, the lawsuit maintains that in doing so, the police have stored information that amounts to a violation of privacy. The issue is not so much the initial scan. Rather, it's the storing of that information indefinitely into a database, regardless of whether those license plates scanned were connected to vehicles or individuals suspected of involvement in a crime.

The ACLU and the EFF are demanding that if law enforcement agencies are going to continue collecting this information, they should destroy it within a matter of weeks if it is deemed not useful for the purposes of a pointed criminal investigation.

The argument is that, while the benefit for law enforcement agencies of hanging onto this information is miniscule, the potential privacy violations of law-abiding citizens are numerous, particularly because these records are kept for anywhere from five years to indefinitely.

While law enforcement officials have declined to speak about the case since the filing of the lawsuit, LAPD Chief Charlie Back has previously defended the practice, saying that it has "unlimited potential" for investigators. The chief went on to say in one interview that the information collected by these scans may not only connect the vehicles or suspects to crimes that have already occurred, but to crimes that will yet occur.

So now we are investigating crimes that haven't happened yet? That's an extremely troubling precedent.

The LASO has nearly 80 police cruisers that are equipped with these devices, although little more than half of those are in working order right now. The rest are undergoing upgrades to improve the storage capabilities. Additionally, there are nearly 50 fixed cameras that are positioned at various locations throughout the county.

The LAPD has said it has about 100 of the devices.

They are certainly not alone in their practice. A survey last year conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 7 out of 10 police agencies in the country employ these same devices.

The lawsuit was filed after the two privacy groups requested that the agencies turn over one week's worth of the data collected in the search. The agencies responded by saying that it didn't have to do so, because the information gathered was investigative. This, despite the fact that much off the information collected is culled automatically, with no connection to any specific investigation.

The privacy groups are confident that a release of the data from this short window will reveal how much peoples' privacy is being violated.

If you have been a victim of wrong-doing by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department or the LAPD, contact The Okorocha Firm at 1-800-285-1763.

Additional Resources:
Privacy groups file lawsuit over license plate scanners, May 6, 2013, By Joel Rubin and Richard Winton, The Los Angeles Times

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