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Wimberly Bill to Prohibit Unauthorized Use of Automated License Plate Reader Data Clears Committee

Legislation Would Protect Privacy Rights of Drivers in New Jersey

Legislation Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly sponsored to prohibit the unauthorized use of automated license plate reader data and protect the privacy rights of motorists in New Jersey was advanced Monday by an Assembly committee.

Automated license plate readers use one or more cameras to photograph license plates and vehicles that come within their range and then convert the images into electronic text documents. The readers then can store and compare the scanned data with a programmed list and notify law enforcement whenever the scanned data matches a license plate on the list.

While the data can help law enforcement agencies quickly locate and apprehend criminals, the collection of massive amounts of information regarding people’s whereabouts raises privacy concerns, Wimberly noted.

“Tracking someone’s vehicle can reveal so many other personal details. Simply by knowing where his or her car is, someone with bad intentions can figure out where that person works, where they live, where their children go to school and where they worship,” said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). “It’s critical that consequences exist for abusing data acquired from an automated license plate reader.”

The bill (A-1880) would make it a disorderly persons offense for an employee of a law enforcement agency to use or access automated license plate reader data without authorization. A disorderly persons offense is punishable by up to six months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to $1,000 or both.

Under the legislation, county prosecutors or the attorney general shall conduct an annual audit of every law enforcement agency’s use of automated license plate readers and automated license plate reader data, which is to be retained for a two-year period and then purged from the system, to determine if they are being used only for official and legitimate law enforcement business.

Additionally, every law enforcement agency that utilizes automated license plate readers would be required to submit an annual report to the attorney general with the following data:

  • the number of automated license plate readers it operates;
  • the number of readings it made with an automated license plate reader;
  • the number of readings it has stored;
  • the number of requests made to the law enforcement agency for automated license plate reader data, including: the number of requests that resulted in the release of information; the number of out-of-state requests; the number of out-of-state requests that resulted in the release of information; the number of federal requests; and the number of federal requests that resulted in the release of information;
  • any data breaches or unauthorized uses of the automated license plate reader data; and
  • a listing of the audit that was completed pursuant to this legislation.

In addition to general concerns about surveillance, automated license plate readers have raised concerns about law enforcement profiling certain communities, Wimberly noted. In 2012, for example, the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division collected the license plate information of Muslim congregants at city mosques. Reporting on how data is being used will increase transparency and help ensure that people’s rights are respected, he said.

“Innocent everyday New Jersey residents are under constant surveillance without having a means of finding out how the information is being used, where it’s being stored and how long it’s being retained,” said Wimberly. “The people of this state should be able to rest assured that their privacy rights are protected.”

The measure was advanced by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.