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ACLU praises Ashland Town Council’s data decision

Posted on Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 11:16 am

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Town council’s recent decision not to store license plate data for a proposed 24-hour window has received accolades from the Virginia chapter of the nation’s leading civil liberties champion.

In a June 4 letter to Mayor Faye Prichard and Vice mayor George Spagna, Claire Gastañaga, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, praised council’s decision noting that it “reaffirms the basic American principle that important policy decisions affecting the rights and liberty of the people should be made in a transparent and open process that includes their voices.”

During a public town council meeting May 20, the Ashland Police Department presented two policy options regarding use of license plate readers (LPRs) the department was able to procure using grant funds from the state. One policy would have stored data for a 24-hour window, a model currently in use by the Virginia State Police; another option would purge it immediately if the license plate was not flagged on a law enforcement “hotlist” containing information on vehicles tied to fugitives, individuals on watch lists or cases of stolen vehicles or missing persons investigations.

Ashland Police planned to deploy two complete units equipped with two LPRs per vehicle, four cameras total.

When proposing the two storage options, Police Chief Doug Goodman Jr. said the original idea was to purge unflagged data instantaneously, but while researching LPRs, he learned that temporary data retention had its benefits and wanted to present that option to council.

“When I say temporary, I’m not talking about 60 days or 30 days. I’m taking about a 24-hour time period,” he said during the meeting.

For example, temporary retention could have been valuable in scenarios where there was an overnight incident and police needed to locate a suspect. It also could have helped authorities in robbery cases, where police would be able to pull records linking a suspect to a vehicle description.

Following town council’s decision, Goodman said he was fine with proceeding with the policy that purges data noting, though, that it might be good to revisit a retention policy in the future if the department could make a compelling case that doing so would make Ashland a safer place.

Tuesday, Goodman said that in presenting the two options to town council, he wanted to ensure transparency and to make sure he was getting the governing body’s input on how to best move forward. Goodman also said he was not trying to advocate for either option May 20, only to present the pros and cons of each policy.

In her letter to town officials, Gastañaga pointed out that LPRs can help serve important law enforcement purposes and the technology poses a minimal threat to privacy as long as records unrelated to an ongoing investigation or identified in a warrant are purged. She added that when the devices are misused, they can be used “to build a vast database of vehicle locations that may be queried to build profiles of where an individual goes, at what times, how often, and who else is in the vicinity.” This type of prying, Gastañaga said, continues in some Northern Virginia jurisdictions despite an opinion from former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that extensive data storage of that kind violates state law.

Gastañaga also weighed in on the APD’s acquisition of body-mounted cameras for use in the field – a new technology for the department funded by the same state grant – and recommended the department put several policies in place governing their use. These included informing citizens they are being recorded and allowing them to request a camera be turned off in cases where police enter a residence outside of an emergency situation or raid. But Gastañaga also said officers should not have discretion to turn cameras on and off at will. Guidelines should also be clear about what happens to the recorded files, including issues like storage and access, she said.

Gastañaga also urged officials to routinely review videos to determine whether police are acting inappropriately or exhibiting bias in the line of duty and to address issues when they are identified.

“Automatic license plate readers and police body-mounted cameras, indeed many surveillance devices, can be used to keep us safe,” she said. “But, as we’ve seen at the federal level with NSA surveillance of innocent Americans, and at the local level…technology can also be abused. We commend [town council’s] decision to make these important public policy decisions in an open and transparent process that includes the voices of the people.”