EFF supports S.B. 712, a California bill that would allow drivers to cover their plates when they’re parked. This simple privacy measure would create an opportunity for drivers to protect sensitive information about their travel and whereabouts from mass collection by law enforcement and private data brokers.
The threat is all too real. Police agencies have surveilled Muslims by collecting plates in parking lots at mosques. Police officers have used license plates of vehicles parked at gay clubs to blackmail patrons. Anti-choice activists are trained to amass license plates of doctors and patients parked at reproductive health centers. Immigration & Customs Enforcement plans to use private license plate databases, effectively dodging state restrictions on data sharing, as it ramps up its deportation efforts.
The California Police Chiefs Association opposes our bill. This week, its lobbyists issued a “floor alert” to state senators that misrepresents how the bill would work.
S.B. 712 Would Not Undermine Amber Alerts
Amber Alerts are designed to put the public and the police on the look-out for kidnappers and their victims based on their images and description, and in some cases their vehicles.
In opposing S.B. 712, the police lobbyists erroneously claim: “Amber alerts don’t work if kidnappers can hide their license plate.” But the evidence does not support their claim that somehow Amber Alerts will no longer be effective.
Here are some examples of how Amber Alerts actually play out.
November 4, 2017: A 2-month-old child in Los Angeles County was rescued after the “vehicle was seen Friday heading north on Interstate 5.”
Under S.B. 712, it would remain a crime to cover your plate while driving your vehicle. Vehicles in motion would still be visible to law enforcement.
July 17, 2017: An 8-month-old child was rescued after “A good Samaritan pulled a car seat from the back of a car Monday after spotting a missing baby with a man who appeared to be under the influence of drugs.”
S.B. 712 would not prevent good Samaritans from identifying a missing child.
October 25, 2016: Solano County Sheriff patrols received an alert of a vehicle suspected of being involved in a kidnapping, but were unable to find the vehicle. Later, patrols spotted the vehicle, but the vehicle evaded them. Eventually a store clerk recognized the kidnapper and flagged down a California Highway Patrol vehicle.
S.B. 712 would not prevent a clerk from recognizing a kidnapper based on an image.
September, 23, 2015: After an Amber Alert was issued for a 5-year-old, the alleged kidnapper—the father—called police directly and asked for assistance.
S.B. 712 would not prevent family members suspected of kidnapping from turning themselves in.
Again, under S.B. 712, it would still be illegal to cover your plate in motion. So the bill would have zero effect on how law enforcement uses automated license plate readers to receive real-time alerts on the plates of vehicles in motion.
S.B. 712 Would Not Help Criminals Hide Their Parked Cars
The chiefs’ floor alert makes the dubious claim that criminal will use S.B. 712 “to park in plain sight, undetected by law enforcement.” This claim lacks merit for several reasons.
First, it’s already legal to use a tarp to cover an entire vehicle, including the plate. So anyone seeking to evade arrest while parking in plain sight already has the legal ability to cover their plate. It is actually easier for police to capture a criminal who covers just their plate, as opposed to their entire vehicle, because law enforcement would still be able to identify the make, model, and color of the vehicle.
Second, S.B. 712 would require people who choose to cover just their plate to do so in a manner that allows law enforcement to lift the cover to inspect their plate. So if a parked vehicle matches the description of a wanted vehicle, officers can confirm their suspicions by lifting the cover.
Third, criminals already have many illegal means of evading license plate detection. They can steal someone else’s plate, or acquire an expired plate on eBay. They can affix a reflective mask or shade over their plate. If a vehicle’s make, model, and color match an Amber Alert, a license plate cover could draw attention, while an inauthentic plate may not.
Finally, criminals already can easily and lawfully hide the plates of their parked cars from ALPR detection by parking their cars in their home garages.
S.B. 712 Would Advance Officer Safety
The California legislature has long recognized that peace officers have an interest in protecting their privacy due to the threat of retaliation. As part of this, law enforcement personnel, and certain other state employees, are granted the ability to hide their address on DMV records.
But ALPR data provides the means to undermine the confidentiality of peace officer home addresses. A private company, for example, could a run a license plate through an ALPR database to identify where that license plate parks overnight—revealing the driver’s home address. In the case of a data breach, criminal elements could also gain access to this sensitive data.
Thus, by empowering peace officers to cover their plates when parked in front of their homes, S.B. 712 would advance officer safety.
S.B. 712 Is Sound Law Enforcement Policy
In sum, the police chiefs incorrectly claim that S.B. 712 would have a detrimental effect on law enforcement.
The police chiefs also fail to recognize the evidence that ALPRs provide little or no law enforcement value. Data collected by EFF from across the state show that only .08% of vehicle plates captured by police ALPRs are connected to a crime. And of those, the overwhelming majority were for stolen vehicles and license plates. Notably, the entire San Diego Police Department had only one ALPR felony “hit” in all of 2016.
And once again: the large portion of that data involves moving vehicles, not parked ones, and so would be unaffected by S.B. 712. For example, law enforcement would still collect information from cameras positioned along highways or on street lights.
S.B. 712 is very simple. You’re allowed to cover your entire parked vehicle in California—including the license plate—so it stands to reason you should be able to cover just the license plate too.