In a blow to the ACLU, the Virginia High Court on Thursday sided with the law enforcement and allowed the Police department to continue collecting license plate data using automated scanners. 

Harrison Neal, a Fairfax county resident represented by ACLU, filed a complaint

against the collection of license plate data using Automated License Plate Readers(ALPRs) back in 2015. 

He argued that storing license plate information of  tens of thousands of residents that are not suspected of any criminal activity went against Virginia’s “Data Act” of 2018.

The major debate in the case surrounded on whether the process for keeping ALPR records constituted an “information system” as defined by state law.

In 2019, a Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge ruled in favour of ACLU and Harrison Neal. Judge Robert Smith agreed  that the “passive” use of Fairfax County Police Department’s Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) system violated Data Act. 

Smith put an injunction in place blocking the system’s use. The current ruling however rolls back that decision.

The High Court reversed the Circuit Court decision making special reference to the interpretation of “Personal Information” as defined by the Data Act. 

Justice Stephen R. McCullough gave a detailed 15-page opinion regarding the issue. The Judge wrote that the system would have to be considered a “record-keeping process” in order to violate state law. Since the data being collected doesn’t include additional personal information like phone numbers, addresses, the system doesn’t violate the law.  

It was ruled that data from the license plates alone isn’t enough to adversely affect the data subject. The officers must connect to a separate database from the state Department of Motor Vehicles or other criminal databases to link a license plate with a name or other personal information which means that the ALPR system isn’t in breach of the Data Act. 

“The strictures of the Data Act contemplate accountability and responsibility by an agency for the data it keeps – not data it can query from other sources,” McCullough wrote.

ACLU Virginia Executive Director Claire Gastañaga reacted to the ruling in an email statement. She expressed concerns that keeping a database of private information gives Police unregulated powers to invade privacy of the citizens. 

“This personal information sits in a database for a year whether you’re suspected of a crime or not. Security and privacy can both be protected without giving police the unregulated power to collect private information ‘just because’ and ‘just in case.’” she said. 

An email from Sergeant Hudson Bull with the Fairfax County Police Public Affairs Bureau said,

“The Fairfax County Police Department will continue to provide the highest level of ethical service to our communities while safeguarding the privacy and constitutional rights of all that we serve.”

The ruling allows Police in Virginia to indefinitely keep data from automated license plate readers.

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