House Endorses Bill Banning Use of License Plate Scanning in Montana

The House voted 59-41 for House Bill 344, which says no state agency or local government can use scanners, except for use in city planning or at highway weigh stations or ports of entry.

by Mike Dennison, The Montana Standard / March 10, 2015

(Tribune News Service) -- The state House Monday endorsed a bill barring Montana governments from using license plate scanners to gather data on vehicles on public highways, with supporters arguing the practice violates citizens’ privacy.

“We have reached the point where the technology is developing ways to keep track of where we are, what we’re doing … and recording it for time immemorial, without restriction,” said Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings. “I think it is reasonable to place restrictions on technology to protect our expectations of privacy.”

The House voted 59-41 for House Bill 344, which says no state agency or local government can use license plate scanners, except for use in city planning or at highway weigh stations or ports of entry.

The bill also says no data collected through such scanning can be used to investigate or prosecute anyone, unless a search warrant is obtained, and that the data can be held for only 18 months.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, the sponsor of HB 344, said license plate scanning is being used already by the federal government and elsewhere to collect vast stores of data on vehicles and even their occupants.

It’s not being done in Montana and is rarely used here, so now is a good time to prohibit and regulate it, before it gets out of control, he said.

“They’re mostly used to compile a massive data base on every vehicle moving down the road to (do) what, we don’t know,” Zolnikov said. “This (bill) is something we can put in place, so with any implementation in the future, we can oversee it to make sure this data isn’t being shared or used incorrectly.”

Opponents of the bill said banning the practice can hinder law enforcement from quickly tracking down criminals or abducted children, and urged its rejection.

Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, said law enforcement recently used the technology to track down a meth addict who had taken her child from an Anaconda hospital and to help solve a murder in Beaverhead County.

“I feel very strongly that this (bill) is not ready for prime-time,” she said. “When we talk about our kids getting absconded, when that happens, we want them protected.”

Other opponents argued that there is not an expectation of privacy when one is driving on a public highway.

Essmann, however, said he objected to that view, and that Montanans should have the right to go to and from where they want, without having their license plate scanned and stored in a data base.

“I would encourage a `yes’ vote on this so we can enjoy our lives,” he said.

Seven Democrats joined 52 Republicans in supporting HB344, which faces a final vote Tuesday before advancing to the Senate. Seven Republicans and 34 Democrats voted against it.

©2015 The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC