The Fairfax County Police Department uses special cameras to snap pictures of license plates, most frequently used in cases of a stolen vehicle. The photos are added to a statewide database called LPR. But effective Monday, officers are no longer able to use it.
The photos may be matched to a missing or stolen vehicle. They may not be matched at all, and sit in the system for 364 days.
A Fairfax County judge ruled the Fairfax County police officers can’t use LPR, because this “passive use” is not permissible under a driver’s constitutional right to privacy.
Ed Rosenthal represented the American Civil Liberties Union, which led this case after it returned to the county from the Virginia Supreme Court. “The collection was appropriate and the storage of information they obtained might be appropriate if it’s directly related to an actual investigation; in other words, some reason to suspect that it’s actually connected to it,” said Rosenthal.
The danger in storing data, said Rosenthal, is just how much data your license plate reveals. Just one photo reveals your name, your birthday, address, and social security number.
If an officer is curious, they can even track where you drive.
“The more time it is stored and kept the more likely it is that someone within the organization is going to misuse it; either innocently or for an improper purpose,” said Rosenthal.
But Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler says there are measures in place to prevent such tampering. Roessler says the database is only accessible through thumbprint recognition. “The passive collection of data for us is not used for curiosity. The policy strictly prohibits the mere curiosity and I will terminate someone for violating that policy,” said Roessler.
Roessler is working to appeal the ruling, with concerns about how it might affect body and dash cam footage that might include a license plate tag.
“We would have to purge the data immediately and we would have no recourse to go back into the system to detect whether or not a criminal was in and around the area,” said Roessler.
While there’s a chance for this case to be appealed, there’s also a chance for it to return to the Virginia Supreme Court. If it passes, this measure will take effect statewide. Roessler says it will have a “domino effect” on the rate in which crime is solved.