A new bill could potentially significantly limit how long the Fairfax County Police Department and other state police departments can store data obtained through automated license plate readers (ALPRs).
As originally written, SB 1198 would bar police from storing data obtained by ALPRs for more than 30 days without a warrant or ongoing active investigation.
ALPRs have the ability to collect data and information like photos of license plates as well as a driver’s location at a particular date and time. They are often mounted on street poles, overpasses, or police square cars while a central server houses the data.
A number of civil liberty organizations like the ACLU have come out against the use of ALPRs as an invasion of privacy and chilling First Amendment protected activity.
The Virginia State Supreme Court ruled late last year that police departments are allowed to keep this data “indefinitely,” no warrant or investigation needed. This came after a Fairfax County judge ruled otherwise in 2019, saying that it was in violation of Virginia’s “Data Act.”
While some jurisdictions do purge this data relatively quickly, the Fairfax County Police Department does not.
Reston Now has confirmed that FCPD stores information collected by ALPRs for up to a year.
Their reasoning is that the information helps protect the community and locate missing persons.
“Using technology such as license plate recognition has improved our ability to safeguard Fairfax County,” Anthony Guglielmi, FCPD spokesperson, told Reston Now in a statement. “With that, we have stringent systems in place to protect the information privacy and constitutional rights of those we serve. We appreciate efforts to further study this important issue because it’s paramount that we strike an equitable balance between data retention and investigational integrity.”
“License plate readers… capture the movement of vehicles. They track who’s attending a church service, who’s attending a political rally, a gun show,” Petersen tells Reston Now. “It can be very arbitrary and very dangerous in that… it’s used to essentially put a layer of surveillance over citizens who are exercising their constitutional rights.”
The bill also notes that opportunities to secure employment, insurance, credit, and the right to due process could be “endangered by the misuse of certain of these personal information systems.”
That being said, Petersen notes his bill does not stop the collecting of this information but rather simply adds a “limitation” – 30 days – on how long information of this nature can be stored.
Additionally, the 30-day limitation is dropped if a warrant is obtained or there’s active criminal or missing person investigation.
“Frankly, it’s a pretty modest requirement,” he says.
Petersen says it’s this lack of “guardrails” that worry him and why he’s continued to propose bills of this nature.
“They say they have all types of internal controls. But who’s the judge of that?,” he says. “Who the heck knows who has access and who doesn’t. It’s the ability to use this [information] arbitrability or prejudicially that we have no control over.”
Besides police departments, information collected by ALPRs have also been used by revenue commissioners to confirm payment of property taxes (as is the case in Arlington County).
A slightly altered version of the bill did pass the Senate, but the House amended the bill to “establish a stakeholder workgroup to review the use of license plate readers” as a substitute for the 30-day limitation of storage.
“When my bill came out of the Senate, it was going to be an actual law. The House turned it into a study,” says Petersen. “Which basically kinda neuters it.”
The ACLU of Virginia agrees, with Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga writing Reston Now in an email that the organization “strongly supports SB1198 as introduced.”
“A requirement that government have a reason for collecting information about you and limiting the retention periods on data collected for no reason is reasonable,” she writes.
However, Petersen admits that it seems like he’s “hit a wall” in terms of getting his version of the bill passed. He doesn’t see a ton of value in a study, so he’s not going to accept the House amendment.
However, it does not alter his long-term goals that this bill could assist with.
“That’s limiting the amount of information the government can collect on its citizens,” he says. “We live in a free society… the government should not be tracking its own citizens.”
Dreams of the issuance of a special Reston license plate have fallen flat, and now those who applied will be getting their money back.
In 2006, Reston’s Dan McGuire began a campaign along with the Reston Citizens Association to garner enough support to get the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a Reston-themed license plate. Special license plates are eligible to be issued for any group that receives at least 450 prepaid $10 applications, as well as authorization from the General Assembly.
Virginia offers more than 250 unique varieties of license plates.
The design for Reston’s special plate, which featured the “Live, Work, Play” motto, was by Doug Fuller. Though McGuire and the RCA campaigned for the plates for several years, the effort fell short. McGuire died in 2013.
Tuesday, the Reston Citizens Association announced it will refund all residents who signed up. RCA says it will be sending notifications to all applicants, letting them know they have a refund coming. Any funds that are unable to be returned by Oct. 1 will be donated to a local charity.
Moira Callaghan, vice president of RCA, said 83 applications were prepaid. She said any future effort to create a Reston specialty plate would have to be “an entirely new campaign.”
“The best course of action [right now] is to refund these applicants and possibly start over,” she said.
For more information, contact Callaghan at [email protected].
Photo of Dan McGuire courtesy Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax Times