California's Top Court Says Cops Have To Hand Over Automatic Plate Reader Records
from the no-more-hiding-behind-abused-exceptions dept
The EFF and ACLU have achieved a victory in an acronym-heavy public records case. The California Supreme Court has ruled the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) will have to turn over data acquired by their automatic license plate readers (ALPRs).
Both entities tried to keep these records from the EFF and ACLU by claiming every single one of the millions of plate records were “investigatory records,” exempt from disclosure under California’s public records law. This apparently included the millions of “non-hit” records never utilized in any LAPD/LASD investigation. With the plate readers collecting 1.5-2 million records per week, they were basically arguing every driver passing by an ALPR was under investigation.
That’s not how the state’s Supreme Court sees it [PDF]. The “investigatory records” exemption pertains to targeted, ongoing investigations. The public records law cannot be stretched to cover indiscriminate mass surveillance.
Accordingly, we hold that real parties’ process of ALPR scanning does not produce records of investigations, because the scans are not conducted as part of a targeted inquiry into any particular crime or crimes. The scans are conducted with an expectation that the vast majority of the data collected will prove irrelevant for law enforcement purposes. We recognize that it may not always be an easy task to identify the line between traditional “investigation” and the sort of “bulk” collection at issue here. But wherever the line may ultimately fall, it is at least clear that real parties’ ALPR process falls on the bulk collection side of it.
The court also says the fact that the database of records is routinely searched during current investigations does not make everything in it immune from public records requests. If the law were interpreted this way, all it would take to exempt every one of the millions of plate records from disclosure would be the inclusion of a targeted plate in every batch of ALPR records requested.
The law enforcement agencies also claimed any release of the data would harm law enforcement interests, supposedly by giving criminals the info they needed to avoid plate readers. The Supreme Court finds this far less persuasive than the lower court did.
The trial court appears to have placed significant weight on the possibility that a criminal could use ALPR data to identify law enforcement patrol patterns. The court did so based on the declaration of LAPD Sergeant Daniel Gomez. In pertinent part, Sergeant Gomez claimed that an individual requesting ALPR data “could use the data to try and identify patterns of a particular vehicle.” (Italics added.) However, Sergeant Gomez also seemed to cast doubt on the likelihood that an individual could do so successfully, explaining that “[u]nlike law enforcement that uses additional departmental resources to validate captured [A]LPR information, a private person would be basing their assumptions solely on the data created by the [A]LPR system . . . .” Nevertheless, we will assume, as the trial court found, that a person could at least roughly infer patrol patterns from a week’s worth of plate scan data.
The problem with this aspect of the trial court’s analysis is that, even assuming patrol patterns can be inferred from ALPR data, there is little reason to believe that this possibility points meaningfully toward “a clear overbalance on the side of confidentiality” with respect to all the records sought. (Michaelis, supra, 38 Cal.4th at p. 1071.) For one thing, fixed ALPR scanners are just that—fixed— so concerns about patrol patterns are inapplicable to the data they collect. For another, the record does not appear to indicate that knowledge of where law enforcement officers were during a particular week is a reliable guide to where they will be at some precise moment in the future. The trial court did not find, for example, that real parties conduct law enforcement in the same way that they might operate a bus service—moving from point to point at particular times on particular days, never deviating to attend to other business or emergencies. We are not aware of substantial evidence that would have supported such a finding.
The court, however, does find one thing to be concerned with, and it’s an issue the LAPD/LASD generally doesn’t take into consideration until they’re being asked to hand over bulk collection records: privacy.
Although we acknowledge that revealing raw ALPR data would be helpful in determining the extent to which ALPR technology threatens privacy, the act of revealing the data would itself jeopardize the privacy of everyone associated with a scanned plate. Given that real parties each conduct more than one million scans per week, this threat to privacy is significant. We therefore conclude that the public interest in preventing such disclosure “clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of” these records.
This means the ACLU and EFF will end up with the data they seek, but in anonymized form. It’s unclear at this point how this will be anonymized, or if the data, in its abstracted form, will show anything interesting. And there’s still more discussion to be had on remand before the ACLU/EFF can actually take possession of the one week of ALPR data they requested. But it’s still a significant precedent — one that narrows the scope of an often-abused public records exemption.