License plate reader bills abruptly die in Virginia legislature

Civil rights groups opposed legislation over ‘mass surveillance’ concerns

By: - February 23, 2023 11:34 am

Flock Safety cameras capture license plates. (Courtesy of Flock Safety)

Despite broad earlier support for the proposal, the Virginia House and Senate this week killed legislation that would have codified a 2020 Virginia Supreme Court decision allowing law enforcement agencies to use and store data from license plate readers while limiting the storage of most data to 30 days.

Over the last few days, momentum to pass both versions of the same bill faded in both chambers after multiple organizations including Justice Forward Virginia, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers expressed privacy concerns in a joint letter dated Feb. 20 to leaders of the House and Senate.

Calling the legislation “grim and harmful,” the groups wrote that “anyone who has read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ or who watched Tom Cruise in Minority Report could tell you why passing it is a bad idea.” 

Lawmakers consider limiting storage of license plate reader data to 30 days

“Our organizations vary across the political spectrum, yet collectively we oppose this mass surveillance tool because of the serious and significant implications on our privacy, the increased unregulated and unmonitored use of technology by law enforcement and the potential this technology has to become just another driver of mass incarceration and disparate policing of Black and Brown people,” the letter continued.

A late attempt to amend the bill to create a work group to examine law enforcement agencies’ use of recording and photography devices still failed to bring the legislation across the finish line. It died Tuesday in the House and Wednesday in the Senate. 

Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, the patron of the Senate version, said the license plate reader bill was on a “smooth journey” in both chambers until Tuesday’s vote, when he saw “an unraveling the likes of which I have never seen down the hall.”

Lewis and Del. Bill Wiley, R-Winchester, who carried the House version, had pitched the legislation as a way to help law enforcement agencies solve cases involving human trafficking, stolen vehicles and child abductions by accessing data on the state’s roadways. 

Under the legislation, law enforcement would have been prohibited from using readers to enforce speed limits, traffic regulations, tolls or high-occupancy vehicle requirements. Videos or images recorded by the readers would have had to be erased after 30 days unless they were being used in an active law enforcement investigation.

Although license plate readers are currently used by law enforcement and some communities in Virginia, their use is a concern for many civil rights organizations, as outlined in the joint letter. 

In 2015, the ACLU of Virginia challenged the Fairfax County Police Department over its use of license plate readers and the storage of their data, which the group claimed violated Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act. 

The Virginia Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the police department, allowing law enforcement to keep their data.


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Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.