EFF and the ACLU of Southern California urged the California Supreme Court in San Francisco to review our lawsuit seeking access to a week’s worth of automated license plate data collected by the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s Departments. The California Court of Appeal last spring sided with the agencies and ruled that these data—gathered on about three million vehicles in Los Angeles every week—could be withheld as “records of law enforcement investigations.”
This case has significant precedential impact, setting a troubling standard allowing police to keep these records and details of its surveillance of ordinary, law-abiding citizens from ever being scrutinized. The appeals court ruling may apply not only to records collected with license plate cameras, but to data collected using other forms of automatic and indiscriminate surveillance systems, from body cameras and dash cameras to public surveillance cameras and drones. Without access to these records, we can’t ensure police accountability.
Our case started in 2012 when we submitted public records requests to the Los Angeles law enforcement agencies asking for data collected by the hundreds of Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) cameras mounted on patrol cars and at fixed locations around the city and county of Los Angeles. ALPRs automatically take a picture of all license plates that come into view and record the time, date, and location where the vehicle was photographed. Because the agencies store the data for two to five years, they have been able to collect a massive amount of sensitive location-based information on mostly innocent Los Angeles residents—likely as many as a half billion data points.
When the agencies refused to turn over the data, we partnered with the ACLU of Southern California—which had filed its own ALPR-related requests—to file suit in Los Angeles Superior Court. We argued the public needed access to the data to learn more about this government-funded program and to properly assess the scope of the privacy risk inherent in such a massive data collection system.
The agencies refused to turn over the records, claiming they could withhold the millions of license plate data points as “records of law enforcement investigations,” which are exempt from public review under the California Public Records Act. Incredibly, they argued that all drivers in Los Angeles are under criminal investigation at all times—whether or not the police suspect them of being involved in any criminal activity. The ACLU has estimated that as many as 99.8% of the vehicles photographed by ALPR cameras are never linked to any ongoing criminal investigation or vehicle registration issue—these drivers are innocent. Unfortunately, both the trial court and the court of appeal in Los Angeles agreed with the agencies.
No case in California has ever before held that this kind of automatic, indiscriminate and untargeted collection of data on the public by the police constitutes an “investigation”—or that data collected through this kind of surveillance regime are “records” of a police investigation. And such a ruling appears contrary to the California Constitution, which not only mandates that the public has a constitutional right to government records but also requires that statutes and other authorities, such as the law involved in our case, “shall be broadly construed if they further the people’s right of access, and narrowly construed if they limit the right of access.”
Law enforcement organizations have already cited the court of appeal’s opinion in another case, trying to prevent public access to patrol car dash camera videos of a fatal police shooting. And law enforcement agencies, both in California and across the U.S. are trying to prevent the public from accessing footage collected with body cameras. It would be ironic if video from cameras adopted to increase transparency and police accountability could be kept from the public. If the Court of Appeal’s decision in our case is allowed to stand, it could do just that.
We hope the California Supreme Court will recognize the importance of this case, grant review, and reverse the lower court ruling to shine a light on this massive surveillance program. We expect to hear from the court in the next few weeks.
An amazing group of amici filed letters in support of our petition with the California Supreme Court:
On behalf of:
On behalf of:
- Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
- Californians Aware
- California Newspaper Publishers Association
- Los Angeles Times Communications
- McClatchy Company
On behalf of:
- Sacramento Valley Mirror
- Lake County News
- Ferndale Enterprise,
- People's Vanguard of Davis
- Woodland Record
- Rio Dell Times
- LION Publishing Group
- Michael Robertson (petitioner in Robertson v. the San Diego Regional Planning Agency (SANDAG), another case seeking access to ALPR data)