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California License Plate Data Shared Despite Warning

Law enforcement agencies statewide offer data collected via automated license plate readers to federal and out-of-state counterparts. But state Attorney General Rob Bonta has ordered agencies to safeguard that information.

Cars pass an automated license plate reader in Norfolk, Virginia.
Cars drive by a Flock Camera, an automated license plate reader, on East Little Creek Road in Norfolk, Virginia, on May 21, 2024. (Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)
Kendall Warner/TNS
(TNS) — Law enforcement agencies across California have routinely made data they collect from automated license plate readers available to federal and out-of-state police departments, despite guidance from Attorney General Rob Bonta declaring the practice illegal.

Still, Attorney Bonta and his office have not taken action against any of the agencies for sharing the information.

An investigation by The News & Observer, a sister publication of The Sacramento Bee, found more than 20 agencies that let non-California departments access license plate reader data collected by one major security firm as of late May, in apparent violation of state law.

Some California law enforcement shared their data with dozens of outside departments, The N&O found. The police department for El Cajon, a city near San Diego, topped the list, making the information available to more than 130 non-California agencies.

The College of the Sequoias District Police Department, in the Central Valley, was second with 91. Its police chief said it stopped making the information available after being contacted by The Bee. The Menifee Police Department, in the Inland Empire, was the third highest with 30.

That said, the number of agencies that have made their data available is likely even more widespread than The N&O found. The paper’s review only focused on departments that use readers made by Flock Safety, a major player in the market that has a network of tens of thousands of cameras across the country.

A report published Wednesday by the Sacramento County grand jury found the Sheriff’s Office and Sacramento Police Department both recently shared license plate data out of state. Yet neither used Flock Safety cameras at the time in question, according to a company spokesperson.

Sacramento police and the Sheriff’s Office both said they have stopped sharing their data, according to the grand jury’s report and the agencies.

The sharing of license plate data has concerned advocacy groups who fear departments in other states could use the information to track the vehicles of people who seek an abortion or gender-affirming care in California, or to identify undocumented immigrants for deportation.

Last year, Bonta’s office issued guidance warning departments not to share license plate reader information with agencies outside California. Late last month, his office took its most targeted action to date, sending letters to 14 police agencies in the state.

Almost all of the letters asked the departments to confirm if they were sharing data out of state. Two letters said the Attorney General’s Office was ready to take legal action if the departments refused to cooperate. As of Monday, however, no such action had been taken.

Most of the agencies were different from those identified by The N&O. They included the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office, the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, and police departments in several East Bay cities including Richmond, Pittsburg, and Antioch.


Law enforcement agencies say the readers are a powerful aid to solving crimes. Along with scanning license plates, police tout how the cameras can capture other information about vehicles, such as their type, which can help quickly track down suspects.

Accessing another department’s data, they add, can be critical to making an arrest.

Beyond that, agencies’ desire to share the information centers around a dispute over state law. In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill that said California police departments are only allowed to share license plate data with other public agencies.

The Attorney General’s Office argued in an October bulletin that the bill’s definition of a public agency is limited to only those in California. But state police associations countered that the law does not explicitly prohibit the sharing of data outside the state.

El Cajon Police Chief Mike Moulton agrees. His department allows agencies as far away as Virginia, Florida and South Carolina to access images pulled from its cameras in Southern California, The N&O found.

“I would be negligent in my duties as a police chief to not use every tool and resource available to protect my community,” Moulton said in a statement to The Bee. “It truthfully boggles my mind that some would interpret that the legislative intent of this statute was to undermine and hinder the investigation of such heinous crimes as human trafficking and child abductions.”

The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to emails asking for comment on Moulton’s remarks and El Cajon’s data sharing practices.

The police department in Oakley, a city about 40 miles south of Sacramento, which The N&O found was sharing license plate data with at least seven out-of-state agencies — including in Texas and Arizona — has disagreed with the Attorney General’s view.

The Oakley PD was one of the two agencies to receive letters from the Attorney General’s Office asking the department to align its practices with state law or face legal action.

When asked recently about the department’s sharing of license plate data, Assistant City Manager Danielle Navarro told The Bee in an email: “We don’t have any comments at this time.”

Dave Gutierrez, a captain for the Menifee Police Department, said the agency is not following Bonta’s guidance.

“Criminals do not stop at jurisdictional boundaries and can often travel long distances to commit crimes,” the captain said in a statement. “The sharing of information is critical to good policing and protecting our communities.”

On the other hand, Donald Charles, the College of the Sequoias chief, said he was not aware of the October bulletin from Bonta’s office until he was asked by The Bee about the small agency’s sharing of Flock data. He decided to cut off access to non-California agencies after reviewing the notice, he said, and speaking with other chiefs of community college departments.

“It’s not going to change any business or functionality with the system,” Charles said.

At least one department identified in The N&O’s review reported not knowing its data was accessible outside California.

The police department for Seaside, near Monterey, granted access to 19 non-California agencies as of late May, the newspaper found, including ones in Georgia and New York. That wasn’t the department’s intention, Commander Matthew Doza told The Bee.

When the department requests access to information from other agencies, the system defaults to allow the other agencies to also have access to Seaside’s data, Doza said. A box needs to be unchecked to prevent that from occurring, the commander said, and sometimes that doesn’t happen.

Doza said the department would remove the access for non-California agencies.

“This is an awesome investigative tool,” the commander said, “and we don’t want to lose it.”

©2024 The Sacramento Be, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.