Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has issued an opinion that limits the use of police license-plate cameras, a decision likely to force departments across the state to restrict how they track cars on Virginia's roads.
The cameras, which are affixed to cruisers and roadside poles, photograph license plates of passing cars and are increasingly used by law-enforcement agencies nationwide. At issue in Virginia is under what circumstances the photos violate the privacy rights of drivers whose movements are captured and recorded.
Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York said his department is receiving automatic license plate readers for two cars in May as part of a $56,000 government grant.
Each car will be equipped with four cameras, which will allow license plates to be read from all sides of the vehicle, York said.
Police departments in Northern Virginia said they are working to determine whether and how the opinion will change the way they collect and store the license-plate data.
"We are in the process of evaluating the opinion and how it might affect the policies and procedures regarding our use of automatic license-plate readers," said Donn Gotthardt, spokesman for police in Fairfax County, Va. "As of now, no decision has been made. Therefore, our procedures will not change for the time being."
The plate readers, which snap 1,800 photos a minute, are different from red-light or speed cameras. They are an investigative tool, capturing a picture of every license plate that passes by and instantly checking them against a database filled with cars wanted by police. The pictures are analyzed in real time and stored with a date, time and location. In some jurisdictions, they are kept in a database indefinitely, whether or not they are used in criminal investigations.
With them, police have quickly been building archives that can track a driver's movements.
Many police agencies currently use the readers in this "passive" way as officers cruise around on routine patrol.
While many police departments across the region — and the country — use the cameras, most are regulated by each agency's internal policies. Until now in Virginia, each department came up with its own rules. That is also the case in the District of Columbia, which has the highest concentration of them in the country, and in Maryland.
But officials and lawmakers nationwide have begun to weigh in on when it is appropriate to use the cameras and when it is an intrusion of privacy. In Minnesota, for example, lawmakers introduced legislation that would require police to keep a public log of where and when they collect license-plate data.
In Maryland's Montgomery County, Rockville City Council member Tom Moore said the mayor and council need to discuss how to handle the information they collect. Currently, the city sends license-plate data to Montgomery County, where it is easily accessible to investigators for a year before it is archived.
"There is a larger issue of how much do we want government tracking the whereabouts of everyone everywhere they go," Moore said. "The only way to be sure the data is not misused is to be sure it doesn't exist."
York said the scanners are a convenient tool for officers, allowing them to easily run a license plate without having to type it into a computer or call it into dispatch while driving.
According to York, an officer with the technology can update the system's database daily. An officer can also set the parameters of what the system will look for, such as stolen cars or suspended drivers.
But York also envisions the technology helping in serious crimes like homicides.
If a witness at a homicide saw a vehicle leaving the scene and happened to remember or write down the license plate number, police could theoretically comb through data collected by the automatic license plate readers to see if that car was spotted at any other place on any particular day.
For instance, if the readers recorded that car parked in front of a specific house or apartment weeks before the homicide, then that could be where the owner of the car lives.
The American Civil Liberties Union specifically questions whether police will use the readers to track law-abiding citizens who are going about their day, having their location recorded without their knowledge.
"Law enforcement can use license plate readers as a legitimate tool," said Allie Bohm, advocacy and policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "But the systems in many places are collecting and storing license and location information of not just people suspected of crimes, but everyone.
"They're surveilling people not suspected of a crime," she added.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.