Civil Liberties Groups Accuse Sheriff's Office of Violating State Law by Sharing License Plate Data


The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are demanding that the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and 70 other California law enforcement agencies immediately stop sharing license plate data with their out-of-state counterparts, particularly those in states that have criminalized abortion.

At issue is agencies’ use of automated license plate readers — digital cameras that record and log the license plates of passing vehicles, documenting when and where they were seen, and sometimes uploading that information to a massive database accessible by other departments. Law enforcement agencies have touted the technology — sometimes used at fixed locations and sometimes attached to patrol cars — as an important tool for locating flagged vehicles, or those entered into the data base as having been stolen or associated with someone wanted for a crime. Civil liberties groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, however, have repeatedly warned that the readers have the potential to passively collect reems of data allowing agencies to effectively track people not suspected of any crime. And now with multiple states not only banning abortion but passing laws allowing the prosecution of people who leave the state to terminate a pregnancy and those who help them, the groups fear these readers could supply agencies with evidence to bolster those cases.

“We are particularly concerned that anti-abortion states may seek to exploit this information to track, locate and prosecute abortion seekers and providers,” the groups wrote in their letters to dozens of law enforcement agencies. “Regardless of your department’s intent, this act of sharing poses a risk to people and violates state law.”

The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office only has one automated license plate reader, or ALPR, which was affixed to a patrol car last year and used for about 12 months by three deputies who were trained to use the technology as a pilot program, according to spokesperson Samantha Karges.

“The testing and evaluation ended at the beginning of this year and is being reviewed by administrative staff for improvements and next steps prior to full implementation,” Karges said in an email to the Journal, adding that the technology is not currently in use by the department.

According to documents released to the ACLU and EFF in response to a records request, the technology read 244,457 license plates from January to November of 2022, registering 4,220 “hits,” or plates that were flagged and on some sort of watch list. That information — documenting exactly when and where almost a quarter of a million cars were spotted in Humboldt County — was then automatically uploaded to a database accessible by more than 400 agencies throughout the country, from Texas and Louisiana to New Jersey and New England.

“ALPR assists law enforcement agencies in working together to solve crime, because as we know, crime is not confined within jurisdictional boundaries,” Karges said. “ALPR allows us to partner with out-of-county law enforcement agencies to combat criminal activity, creating a safer community for all.”

Karges added that in compliance with state law, the data is not shared with federal law enforcement agencies tasked with immigration enforcement. But the ACLU and EFF fear the data is being shared with agencies who may be looking to build a case against someone for seeking an abortion in California.

“ALPR technology and the information it collects is vulnerable to exploitation against people seeking, providing and facilitating access to abortion,” the ACLU and EFF letters state. “Law enforcement officers in anti-abortion jurisdictions who receive the locations of drivers collected by California-based ALPRs may seek to use that information to monitor abortion clinics and the vehicles seen around them and closely track the movements of abortion seekers and providers. This threatens even those obtaining or providing abortions in California, since several anti-abortion states plan to criminalize and prosecute those who seek or assist in out-of-state abortions.”

Sharing the data is a violation of state law, the organizations argue, as it prohibits local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with out-of-state entities investigating abortions that are lawful in California.

While the sheriff’s office was the only agency locally to receive a letter, it’s not the only one that uses — or has used — ALPR technology.

Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn said his department currently uses the license plate readers on two of its patrol cars but does not share the data collected with other agencies. The Eureka police department, meanwhile, used to have ALPRs on a couple of its patrol cars but no longer uses the technology, according to Assistant Chief Brian Stephens. Asked why the department stopped using the readers some years back, Stephens said he believed it was primarily a budget decision, saying the systems are expensive.

The letter from the ACLU and EFF requests a response from agencies by June 15. While Karges said the sheriff’s office “has been made aware” of the letter, but did not answer a Journal question regarding how it plans to respond.

The ACLU and EFF conclude their letter urging departments to not only come into compliance with state law by immediately ending data sharing with out-of-state-agencies, but also to ditch the ALPR technology entirely.

“The risks to civil liberties and civil rights that ALPR technology creates are well-documented,” the letter states. “Even if the department takes steps to prevent the formal sharing of data with out-of-state agencies, the risk of informal sharing with these same agencies will remain. Thus, the best way to ensure that … residents and visitors are safe from unnecessary intrusion into their personal lives is to reject the use of ALPR technology altogether.”

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