The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU-SC) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) each sent California Public Records Act requests to the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) data. ALPRs are cameras, often mounted on police cars or fixed objects like light poles, that automatically and indiscriminately capture an image of every license plate that comes into view. ALPRs also record the time, date, and location of every car.
ALPR data is often compared against a list of plates for wanted vehicles, and the accumulated data can be searched by police in future investigations to identify past movements of drivers. One ALPR camera is capable of logging thousands of plates per hour. Each week in Los Angeles alone, the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department collect license plate and location information on vehicles nearly 3 million times. Together, these agencies average 66 hits for each of the approximately 7.6 million registered vehicles in LA. This data is maintained for years. Because of the frequency of the scans, and the detail recorded, ALPR data can be used to track where ordinary citizens have been and, thus, where they are likely to go.
In order to understand and educate the public on the risks to privacy posed by ALPRs in Los Angeles, ACLU-SC and EFF sought documents related to ALPR use, including one week’s worth of data. The LAPD and Sheriff’s Department denied the request for the ALPR data, claiming that such information was exempt from the Public Records Act because it was either an investigatory record or part of an investigatory file (Government Code section 6254(f)), privileged “official information” (Government Code section 6254(k)); and because the public interest in not disclosing the records “clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure.”
On May 6, 2013, ACLU-SC and EFF filed a Verified Petition for Writ of Mandate and Writ of Mandate Ordering Compliance with the California Public Records Act that was denied by the Superior Court.
ACLU-SC and EFF appealed that decision. FAP, on behalf of the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (Nor Cal SPJ), filed an amicus brief in support of the release of the records. FAP argued that the mass, indiscriminate collection of license plate data, recording the location, movements, and behavior of ordinary citizens, implicates serious state and federal constitutional concerns. The extent of this secret surveillance is so far-reaching, and the potential for abuse so great, that the chilling effect is enormous on the rights to free speech, a free press, the right to association,and the attendant right to anonymity.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Los Angeles Times, California Newspaper Publishers Association, Californians Aware, and the McClatchy Company also filed an amicus brief.