Legislators propose restricting use of police license plate readers

An automated license plate reader camera, upper left, is shown mounted to the light bar on a Middleton Police Department cruiser. Legislators want to restrict the ability of police departments to capture and store images of civilian license plates.

The growing police practice of recording and storing civilian license plate images would be restrained under a bill proposed by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers.

The bill, circulated for co-sponsorship Tuesday by Rep. David Craig, R-Vernon, Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, relates to automated license plate readers, which use multiple cameras mounted on a police car to record the date, time and location of every passing vehicle.

“We have technology advances that are imperiling civil liberties,” Craig said in an interview Tuesday. “You have this technology that has been used that without limits by the Legislature can lead to some very, very bad outcomes for constitutional rights.”

The State Journal reported in July that several police agencies in Wisconsin have vehicles equipped with the cameras recording images 24 hours a day.

Four agencies in Dane County — Fitchburg, Middleton, Sun Prairie and Verona — have collected and stored millions of images in recent years and planned to keep them for seven years.

A consortium of local police agencies, including those four, approved a policy Monday limiting the retention of those images to a year.

Madison police officers don’t use the technology, but parking enforcement vehicles do.

The bill would allow the cameras to be turned on only during the investigation of a crime. It also would prohibit sharing the stored information with non-government entities and require data destruction within 48 hours, unless it was necessary for a criminal investigation.

Craig said police also should be allowed to use the technology during emergency situations, such as a missing person, though the bill draft released Tuesday doesn’t allow for that.

Five Dane County police chiefs who are part of a data-sharing consortium issued a statement Tuesday calling the bill “unfortunate.”

“We have been responsibly using the (license plate readers) since October of 2010 and have not received any complaints of violating civil rights or misuse of the data,” they said. “This proposed legislation is contrary to ensuring that law enforcement has the tools needed to effectively enforce our state’s laws.”

The State Journal investigation, which the bill authors cite in their sponsorship memo, found about 2.5 percent of the images captured in Dane County resulted in “potential hits,” meaning a computer recognized the plates from a database of vehicles that were either stolen or sought in connection with a crime. However, the technology doesn’t distinguish between state plates, so many of those hits were false positives.

Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Gov. Scott Walker did not have comment on the bill. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not respond to a request for comment.

The American Civil Liberties Union in recent months has warned about the potential for the system to infringe on the privacy rights of civilians.

But police agencies defend their use of the technology, saying it can help recover stolen vehicles, find kidnapped children and identify suspects fleeing a crime scene. They compare the readers to a police officer on a stakeout, only with more perfect memory.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said his board members have not discussed the proposal, but he expects they would oppose any broad restrictions on use of the technology.

At the same time, police agencies would appreciate guidelines on how long civilian plate records should be kept. He said they likely wouldn’t need to be kept longer than one or two weeks.

Craig said he could be flexible on the length of retention if there was a practical reason to keep records longer than 48 hours, which is a standard used in Minnesota.

But “seven years is unacceptable,” he said. “One year is unacceptable.”

The ACLU recommended five guidelines for acceptable use of the technology, including that it be used to investigate crimes, that data on innocent civilians be purged in a matter of days or weeks and that sharing data with third parties be restricted.

The organization also recommended allowing the public to find out if their own license plate information is in a law enforcement database and publicly reporting on use of the system at least annually.

Palmer said police agencies would support restrictions on sharing license plate information with third parties. However, he said he worries the bill would limit the sharing of aggregate data, such as the total number of license plate reads and hits that agencies record each month or year.

Craig said he would make sure the legislation allows agencies to share aggregate data with the public in order to inform policy decisions.

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