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AG opinion could curb license plate surveillance

A recent opinion from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli could put a crimp in some police use of license plate readers that scan vehicle tag numbers.

In an official opinion letter, Cuccinelli said a state statute bars the passive collection of license plate data when it is not intended for prompt evaluation and potential use regarding suspected criminal activity.

Police have been using special cameras on police cars to gather and store a mountain of data on the location of private vehicles. The growing government use of license plate reader technology has aroused privacy concerns, and the ACLU of Virginia is among groups studying the practice.

Virginia State Police Superintendent Col. W.S. Flaherty asked Cuccinelli if Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act (Va. Code § 2.2-3800 et seq.) permits police to collect, maintain and share information from license plate readers.

Only in a limited way, Cuccinelli responded.

LPR data can be collected only if it is classified as “criminal intelligence information” and related directly to law enforcement investigations and intelligence gathering respecting criminal activity, Cuccinelli said.

Asked if the AG’s opinion has led to any changes in VSP operations, a spokesperson said only, “The Virginia State Police sought out this written opinion from the Attorney General to ensure that our data collection and storage methods are in compliance with Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act.”

The ALCU of Virginia also is noncommittal about the impact of Cuccinelli’s opinion. “At this point, we are still reviewing the opinion and whether it would affect programs in Virginia,” said Rebecca Glenberg, the group’s legal director.

In Richmond, where the city announced last month it will scan license plates to identify scofflaws with outstanding parking tickets, a spokesperson said a program to “boot” offenders’ cars will continue, with or without license plate readers.

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