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A Virginia state court has decided that a license plate number is not personal information—essentially validating law enforcement’s use of license plate readers in the commonwealth.
In a recently published opinion letter, the 19th Judicial Circuit of Virginia ruled against a man who sued the Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) and its chief of police.
The man alleges that the agency has been “unlawfully” collecting information about his license plate in violation of state law.
Circuit Court Judge Robert J.
Smith ruled that a license plate number is not “personal information,” as defined under Virginia law, essentially because, as license plate numbers must be made publicly visible, there can be no privacy interest.
Therefore, according to Judge Smith, license plate numbers cannot be considered “personal information.” (It is worth noting however, that in Google Street View, all license plates are blurred.)
According to the judge’s letter, the FCPD has used LPR technology since at least 2010, and its scanners can read 60 plates per second.
The device is commonly used by law enforcement nationwide as a way to scan unknown plates against a known “hot list” of stolen or wanted vehicles.
As Ars reported previously, the lawsuit, which was filed in May 2015 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia on behalf of the man, Harrison Neal, marks a unique legal challenge to the use of automated license plate readers (LPR) by local law enforcement.
In 2014, Neal asked via a public records request for all instances in which his car had been read by the FCPD LPR system; the agency provided documentation showing that he had been seen twice in 2014.
The case alleges that the FCPD, through its “passive” collection and storage of massive amounts of data (license plate number, date, time and GPS location) contravenes the Virginia Data Act of 1976. Passive collection is distinct from the FCPD’s “active” use of the data, when it scans an unknown plate against a “hot list” of wanted or stolen vehicles and determines that the unknown plate is part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
In Virginia, the state’s own attorney general has previously said in a 2013 letter to the head of the state police that such active collection violates the Data Act. Neal had asked the court to forbid the FCPD from continuing its passive scanning, in which the department routinely collects and stores thousands of LPR records on a daily basis.
The ACLU of Virginia has not yet determined whether it will pursue any appeals.
“We are reviewing our options,” Bill Farrar, an ACLU of Virginia spokesman, e-mailed Ars.