DENVER – Like the lyrics in Sting’s “I’ll be watching you,” law enforcement officials in Colorado and across the nation may be tracking “every move you make” with cameras snapping your license tag. The data can trace your movements in a single day – or over a period of years.
The American Civil Liberties Union obtained records through the Freedom of Information Act and issued a lengthy report Wednesday about the invasion of privacy that affects tens of millions of innocent citizens.
“License plate scanners can be a legitimate tool for law enforcement when their use is narrowly tailored and focused on an ongoing criminal investigation,” said ACLU of Colorado Public Policy Director Denise Maes, “but these documents show that police departments around the state are using license plate scanners to conduct broad, invasive surveillance of all citizens in case they might someday commit a crime.”
In Colorado, grants from the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority (CAPTA) directly or indirectly funded the purchase of automated license readers in Boulder, Longmont, Lafayette, Erie and Louisville.
Police departments in Commerce City and Thornton and the Adams County Sheriff’s Department were awarded CAPTA grants to initiate an Automatic License Plate reader program in 2010. The cities of Denver and Aurora have also utilized the cameras to scan and track license tags.
According to the ACLU report, cameras are mounted on patrol cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, and the documents show that this practice is increasing rapidly. They photograph every license plate encountered, use software to read the number, add a time and location stamp, and record the information in a database. Police are alerted when numbers match lists containing license numbers of interest, such as stolen cars.
Law enforcement policies regarding the use and retention of the information vary for each jurisdiction in Colorado. Denver police reportedly discard the scanned tags after 21 days unless it turns up a “hit” on a stolen vehicle. Aurora retains the scans for two years – or longer if the license is linked to a criminal investigation.
The City of Longmont maintains all automated license reader data for a minimum of one year and a maximum of two. Longmont license plate readers do not distinguish between Colorado and out-of-state plates, occasionally resulting in false hits for innocent drivers.
According to the documentation, only five states have enacted laws to restrict the use of the cameras or the length time information can be retained.