Pennsylvania latest state to take steps to limit use of license plate readers

October 2, 2018

Keith Goble


State officials around the country continue to take action on efforts to pursue and adopt rules that cover the practice of tracking drivers’ movements through automatic license plate readers. The devices are mounted on police vehicles, road signs or traffic lights.

High-tech cameras to capture the date, time and location that scanned vehicles passed are used in some capacity by about 600 local and state police departments and other state and federal agencies, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Private business, such as repossession companies and vehicle insurance companies, also use the technology, which can capture about 1,800 images per minute.

The technology is not without flaws. Conditions, including bad weather, poor lighting, dirt on plates and background colors, can result in false matches.

Critics say use of the scanners amounts to warrantless searches.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported the federal government has made a practice of tracking the location of millions of vehicles. The practice has been carried out without a warrant, or public notice of the policy.

Supporters say the scanners are not intended to infringe on peoples’ privacy.

To date, at least 16 states have enacted rules relating to the use of automated license plate readers. Among the group, there are seven states to place restrictions on government or law enforcement use of the technology. There are 10 states that limit how long data can be kept, and four states specify that data is exempt under public records laws.

Recent statehouse activity on the issue is listed below.

A bill nearing passage would put into place restrictions on the state’s use of automated license plate readers.

Pennsylvania law already permits police, as well as parking authorities and entities other than law enforcement, access to the scanners.

HB1811 would specify who can use plate readers, how data can be collected, and the length of time data can be kept.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted unanimously to advance the bill that reads vehicle data could be kept for up to one year. At that time, captured data must be destroyed.

Data collected prior to the bill’s passage would be required to be destroyed within one year of the bill’s effective date. As approved by the House, the bill required data collected to be destroyed within 60 days of the effective date.

Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, has said the data collected is an invaluable tool for law enforcement. He said his bill is to help ensure the information of Pennsylvanians is kept private if they are doing nothing wrong.

“The current technology of automated license readers is being used,” Rothman previously testified. “This is a new chapter in the vehicle code that will restrict how that data can be used by governmental agencies. Heretofore, this bill will put in place limits that have not been in place.”

The bill awaits further consideration on the Senate floor. If approved there, it would head back to the House for approval of changes before moving to the governor’s desk.

Georgia lawmakers also took action earlier this year to require law enforcement agencies across the state that obtain license plate information through automated license plate readers to destroy unused data after 30 months.

Until now, state law has not limited the length of time data can be kept by law enforcement agencies.

Previously HB79, the new law permits agencies to retain data for a longer period if it is part of an ongoing investigation or a toll violation. Data could also be shared between agencies.

Rep. Paulette Rakestraw, R-Hiram, said the change strengthens the state’s privacy laws and protect citizens from having their license plate information stored indefinitely, or subject to open records requests.

One new law provides criteria for who can use plate readers.

LB93 permits government entities to use the technology only to identify vehicles that are associated with a missing person, registered to someone with an outstanding warrant, relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation or reported as stolen.

Parking enforcement agencies are also permitted to use plate readers to track outstanding parking or traffic violations, assist weigh stations or collect tolls.

Captured data must be purged within 180 days unless it is used as evidence or is the subject of a warrant, subpoena or court order.

“Protecting the privacy rights of our citizens should be one of the government’s highest concerns,” Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln said in previous remarks.

New Jersey
An effort active at the New Jersey statehouse would prohibit unauthorized use of data collected via automated license plate readers.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Bergen/Passaic, has said that while the data can help law enforcement agencies quickly locate and apprehend criminals, “the collection of massive amounts of information regarding people’s whereabouts raises privacy concerns.”

His bill, A1137, would authorize punishment of up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000 for employees of law enforcement agencies that use or access collected data without authorization.

Agencies using license plate readers would be required to submit an annual report to the attorney general. County prosecutors or the attorney general would also be responsible to do an annual audit of each agency’s use of the devices.

Wimberly’s bill has is in the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee. The Senate version, S1785, is in the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.

One more bill, A199, focuses on the amount of time that data can be kept. The bill would limit data retention to 48 hours.

It is in the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.

State legislators and Gov. Phil Scott recently renewed a law to continue for two more years the state’s restriction on the use of plate readers.

S150 extends the 2-year-old law signed by then-Gov. Peter Shumlin to amend statute to specify the scanners cannot be used for parking enforcement or traffic violations. However, information can be collected for ongoing criminal, missing person, or commercial trucking investigations or enforcement.

The Department of Motor Vehicles is authorized to manage a separate database of automated license plate reader data in connection with commercial vehicle enforcement activities.

Data retention is limited to 18 months.


Keith Goble has been covering trucking-related laws since 2000. His daily web reports, radio news and “OOIDA’s State Watch” in Land Line Magazine are the industry’s premier sources for information regarding state legislative affairs.