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Court: Lawsuit can move ahead in license plate reader case

(AP)  In a victory for privacy advocates, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled Thursday that a lawsuit challenging a police department’s practice of keeping data from automated license plate readers for a year can move forward.

Last year, a judge dismissed a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Fairfax County, ruling that a license plate doesn’t contain personal information.

But the state’s highest court reversed that ruling and sent the case back down to circuit court to determine whether the record-keeping process provides police with a “readily made” link to the vehicle’s owner.

The court said if that link exists, then storage of the data is not exempt from Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act because the police “collected and retained personal information without any suspicion of criminal activity.”

Police have said the data is crucial to help find missing people and solve crimes. Critics worry the information can be used to track people who are not suspected of a crime.

The data collection law was enacted to better ensure safeguards for personal privacy by government agencies. The law guarantees citizens the right to see any records containing personally identifiable information about them.

The ACLU praised the ruling.

“Everyone should be able to move about freely in public without fear of the government collecting and retaining information about their comings and goings … giving way to a possibility that the information might be used against them in the future or become available to individuals who hack the government database,” ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga said.

Fairfax County police Chief Col. Edwin Roessler Jr. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case began when a Fairfax County resident, Harrison Neal, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking automated license plate records for his vehicle. The police department sent Neal two photos of his vehicle showing his license plate, and a chart that indicated the time, data and GPS location from which at least one of the photos was taken.

Neal filed a complaint against the department, seeking an injunction to bar police from continuing to collect and store license plate date without suspicion of any criminal activity.

In its written response, the department argued that its use of the license plate readers did not violate the data law and that Neal had failed to show that the database contained information specifically identifying him.

-DENISE LAVOIE, AP Legal Affairs Writer

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