License plate privacy bill clears Virginia Senate

A bill restricting the ability of law enforcement to retain information collected from license plate readers passed the Virginia General Assembly Senate 38-0 on Friday.

Senate bill 965, known as the government data collection and dissemination act, would limit the ability to retain license plate data in law enforcement databases to seven days if the information is not being used in an active crime or missing persons investigation. A similar bill passed the House of Delegates Militia, Police and Public Safety Subcommittee 17-4 on Thursday.

License plate readers, which are mounted to police cars, are used to capture information from license plates of vehicles that pass by and are used for reducing auto thefts, capturing fugitives and tracking vehicles with ties to criminal activity. License plate readers can scan between 1,800 to 3,600 plates a minute and the images are retained according to an agency’s discretion.

Jeanette Tejeda de Gomez, a public relations specialist with AAA Mid-Atlantic, said her organization is lobbying in favor of the bill because it believes “indefinite” retention of license plate numbers are an invasion of privacy.

“Law enforcement at this point don’t actively have a policy on how long they keep data,” Gomez said. “Our position with AAA is license plate readers are important and we’re supportive of them, but not for the purposes of keeping the data for an extended period of time.”

Gomez added, “If a department has the information and the data is connected to a crime, then departments absolutely should hold onto the data. But if it’s just being held perpetually and not connected to any criminal activity, then that’s an invasion of privacy.”

Gomez said she believes law enforcement should retain information long enough to check the plate numbers for a vehicle’s possible link to crimes and incidents.

“Keeping the info for months is very different than years, because it gives enough time to check the data,” Gomez said. “It’s still a very important tool to find stolen vehicles and missing persons.”

Despite lobbying for the bill, Gomez said AAA still maintains a good relationship with law enforcement agencies.

“We work greatly with our law enforcement agencies, but we also want to make sure people’s privacy rights are being respected,” Gomez said.

The House of Delegates bill will have to go to the floor for a full vote and then the Senate and House versions will have to be combined before it can reach the governor’s desk, Gomez said. She also said the bill has enjoyed bipartisan support.

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com