License Plate Reader Companies Lose Case Seeking To Have Anti-ALPR Law Declared Unconstitutional

from the will-just-have-to-make-do-with-the-millions-of-records-already-acquired dept

Last summer, automatic license plate reader manufacturer Vigilant Systems took the state of Arkansas to court over its legislative ban on the private collection of license plate data. It argued -- along with Digital Recognition Networks -- that the new law encroached on its First Amendment rights.

Its argument was this: photography of public objects is protected by the First Amendment. A license plate is a public object and, when photographed from a public street, is no different than any random person with a camera snapping license plate photos. Because an individual taking a smaller set of photos would fall under these protections, an ALPR company should similarly be covered. A violation that does not occur in individual cases does not suddenly arise when the amount of photos "taken" (along with location data) is in the millions.

Vigilant pursued a similar lawsuit against Utah and succeeded in gutting the state's anti-ALPR legislation. It was hoping to do the same here, but the state of Arkansas held firm, fighting the companies all the way up to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has found in favor of the state.

The lower court had granted the state its motion to dismiss, finding that the defendants were immune from litigation under the Eleventh Amendment, and more importantly, that Vigilant, et al lacked standing to pursue a claim against the state. DRN and Vigilant appealed.

Digital Recognition argues that the district court erred by dismissing its complaint based on the Eleventh Amendment and state sovereign immunity. The state officials make a two-fold response: The Eleventh Amendment bars the suit, because the officials do not have sufficient connection to enforcement of the Reader System Act, and there is no Article III case or controversy, because Digital Recognition lacks standing to sue.
The Appeals Court sides with the previous decision. While it recognizes there may be a chance that Digital Recognition can achieve standing, it won't be against these particular defendants.
We may assume that Digital Recognition satisfies the injury-in-fact element of standing, because it has alleged that but for the Act, it would resume collecting and disseminating license-plate data in Arkansas. This conduct is “arguably affected with a constitutional interest,” Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat’l Union, 442 U.S. 289, 298 (1979), because the “creation and dissemination of information are speech within the meaning of the First Amendment.”


Digital Recognition nonetheless lacks standing to sue the governor and attorney general because the injury of which Digital Recognition complains is not “fairly traceable” to either official. Article III requires “a causal connection” between the injury and the defendant’s conduct; the injury may not be a result of “the independent action of some third party not before the court.”
Because the two defendants -- the governor and attorney general -- are not directly involved in enforcing the law, any injury resulting from the law can only be traced back to plaintiffs bringing civil litigation against the alleged violators. The attorney general may defend the lawfulness of the anti-ALPR law, but the office does not itself bring actions against a violating entity. So, as the law is written, the parties named here cannot be held responsible for violating the two companies' First Amendment rights.

The plate reader companies also tried a few obliquely-angled attacks on the law, neither of which found their mark.
Digital Recognition requests a permanent injunction, phrasing this request as one for an “injunction[] enjoining Defendants from applying or enforcing the Act’s provisions,” and an “injunction against the application or enforcement of the Act.". But as the district court observed, an injunction prohibiting the attorney general from intervening in a private damages action to defend the Act’s constitutionality would not redress Digital Recognition’s injury… Private litigants who assert violations of the Reader System Act may defend the constitutionality of the Act, and they will not be constrained by any injunction that could be issued against the state officials in this action. A district court has no authority to enjoin the statute; an injunction would run only against the defendants in the case.


Digital Recognition suggests that even if an injunction against the officials would not redress its injury, the district court could declare the Act unconstitutional, and the relief accorded by a declaratory judgment would satisfy Article III. A declaration, the companies argue, would substantially diminish the risk that the Act would be enforced: private parties would be less likely to sue, the attorney general would not intervene to defend the Act, and a declaratory judgment would “create precedent that binds federal and state judges in Arkansas.” This argument, however, “overlooks the principle that it must be the effect of the court’s judgment on the defendant that redresses the plaintiff’s injury, whether directly or indirectly.” A declaration that the Reader System Act is unconstitutional would not redress Digital Recognition’s injury by virtue of its effect on the defendant officials. Private litigants with rights to enforce the Act would not be the subject of any relief in this action, and any judgment would not oblige private litigants to refrain from proceeding under the Act.
In the end, the law stands and the officials named as defendants are immune from litigation. The companies can still challenge the legality of the law, but they'll have to take a different approach. For the time being, plate information will still be collected in Arkansas, but only by government entities. Private collections -- usually obtained by towing companies and sold to repo firms, auto dealers and insurers -- are still off limits.

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Filed Under: alpr, arkansas, first amendment, license plate reader, privacy
Companies: vigilant systems

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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 19 Oct 2015 @ 8:49pm

    Scope matters

    Say you have someone who for whatever reason takes a picture of anyone that passes through a certain intersection. Day or night, rain or shine, they stay there and they take pictures of those that pass through. Though they might get some strange looks, perhaps questioned by the police and/or fined for loitering, most people would brush it off as harmless.

    Now say you had one person, who for whatever reason decided to stalk someone. They followed them to their work, they followed them to the movies, to the store, carefully noting at each point where the person was, when they left, when they arrived, each detail being compiled into a record that allowed them to know where the person was at all times.

    While the stalker is 'only' following the person, most people probably wouldn't care to have their movement tracked to such a degree(or at all) by complete stranger, and you probably wouldn't have to look too hard to find a judge willing to issue a restraining order to restrict or bar their ability to do so.

    In both cases, the action performed, that of taking a picture, remains the same. Yet while one picture, in one location is able to reveal at most that vehicle/person X traveled through location Y at time Z, that's really all it reveals. Many pictures, taken from many locations though allows you to track someone almost as thoroughly as though you'd placed a tracker on their vehicle, all without a warrant or even having to see a judge at all.

    It's a tricky issue, and needs to be considered in depth, but to try and claim that a system of cameras is no different than one person taking pictures is not only wrong it's downright dishonest, given the vast difference between the two. One picture reveals little about a person, but a string of pictures can reveal a lot.

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