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Could License Plate Data Sharing Prompt Arrests in Other States?

Two groups are leading an effort to stop law enforcement agencies in California from sharing captured license plate data with agencies in states that have criminalized abortion. They fear the data could lead to charges.

A traffic jam on a busy city street at sunset.
(TNS) — Abortion is mostly illegal in Texas. Anyone who helps a woman get one can be criminally liable under Lone Star State law.

So, who's at risk if the Orange County Sheriff's Department has shared data it collects from automated license plate readers with police agencies in Texas towns like Giddings, El Paso, Gulfport, Liberty County, Nacogdoches County and Wise County? Could that California-collected data be used to track down and prosecute folks who help Texas women get care that's legal here, but outlawed there?

Turns out OCSD — and 70 other police agencies across 22 California counties — have received demand letters from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union, urging them to stop sharing this data with states that restrict or outlaw abortion. California's Attorney General has been copied on those letters as well.

"ALPR (automated license plate reader) technology is a powerful surveillance system that can be used to invade the privacy of individuals and violate the rights of entire communities," the demand letters read.

"ALPR systems collect and store location information about drivers whose cars pass through ALPR cameras' fields of view, which, along with the date and time of capture, can be built into a database that reveals sensitive details about where individuals work, live, associate, worship, seek medical care, and travel. Much of this information has traditionally been unavailable to law enforcement without a search warrant."

The civil liberties organizations aren't the only ones concerned about this technology.

In 2020, the California State Auditor concluded "the law enforcement agencies we reviewed must better protect individuals' privacy through ensuring that their policies reflect state law. In addition, we found that these agencies must improve their ALPR data security, make more informed decisions about sharing their ALPR data, and expand their oversight of ALPR users."

There have been some policy changes since then, but perhaps not enough.


We suspect most folks aren't aware that so many cities collect license plate data.

Orange County has the distinction of having the most police agencies receiving the demand letter, at 12. In addition to OCSD, there are the police departments in Buena Park, Cypress, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, La Habra, La Palma, Laguna Beach, Orange, Seal Beach, Tustin and Westminster.

Much larger Los Angeles County has 11 police agencies on the list: Alhambra, Arcadia, Burbank, Downey, Hermosa Beach, Montebello, Monterey Park, Palos Verdes Estates, Pasadena, Torrance and West Covina.

There are seven in Riverside County: Beaumont, Desert Hot Springs, Hemet, Menifee, Murrieta, Palm Springs and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

And there are five in San Bernardino County: Chino, Fontana, Ontario, San Bernardino Police Department and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

In Northern California, there are eight in Contra Costa County ( Antioch, Brentwood, Hercules, Oakley, Pittsburg, San Pablo, San Ramon and Walnut Creek), two in Marin County ( Novato and San Rafael) and one in Santa Clara County ( Gilroy).

The EFF and ACLU say that sharing this information with agencies beyond California's borders is illegal, and give the cities and counties a June 15 deadline for "prompt action and response."


"We have received the letter and are analyzing it," said a spokesperson for Attorney General Rob Bonta by email. "Beyond that, to protect its integrity, we're unable to comment on, even to confirm or deny, a potential or ongoing investigation.

"That said — Attorney General Bonta remains committed to safeguarding the digital privacy of individuals seeking reproductive care, and protect sensitive health data from being misused to target them."


In this post-Roe v. Wade world, the information collected could be used by police and/or prosecutors in anti-abortion jurisdictions in Texas to monitor California abortion clinics, and the vehicles near them, EFF and ACLU maintain.

That could spell legal peril for the doctors, nurses and others who work in these clinics, as well as for out-of-state people who seek care and provide transportation.

"There are some prosecutors and police that are going to be treating this very aggressively, on par with murder or kidnapping," said Dave Maass, investigations director for EFF. "And license plate readers are one of the easiest things to access. You don't need probable cause or a search warrant. This data should not be shared outside state lines. The simplest and most responsible thing to do is to cut off access for the external agencies."

The baker's dozen cities that contract with the Orange County Sheriff's Department for their community's police services hold the contracts with license plate reader services, not with OCSD itself, officials said. The county's largest police agency says it's just trying to follow the rules.

"OCSD consistently follows the law related to (California Public Record Act) disclosures and is committed to transparency," said department spokeswoman Carrie Braun. "Generally, the requestor's location is not a factor in determining whether a record is subject to CPRA disclosure. If CPRA law were to change, or if any additional restrictions around the sharing of ALPR data were enacted, we will modify our practices to follow the law."

We reached out to dozens of cities and counties that received the demand letters. Suffice to say folks aren't eager to talk about it. But on Twitter, an irate Sacramento Sheriff's Department fired back.

"Law enforcement agencies commonly use information from License Plate Readers (LPRs) to investigate serious crimes, such as homicide, child kidnappings, human trafficking, and drug trafficking across state borders," it tweeted.

"However, some organizations, such as the ACLU and EFF, have lied that law enforcement sharing this information is an attempt to violate people's legal rights. These false claims are intentional and part of a broader agenda to promote lawlessness and prevent criminals from being held accountable."

Maass, of EFF, said that's wrong but amusing.


Agencies may not be sharing data in an attempt to violate people's rights, but they're violating them nonetheless, the critics maintain.

Under the California Civil Code, as amended by Senate Bill No. 34, "[a] public agency shall not sell, share, or transfer ALPR information, except to another public agency, and only as otherwise permitted by law, according to Civ. Code § 1798.90.55(b), the demand letters explain.

A public agency is defined as "the state, any city, county, or city and county, or any agency or political subdivision of the state," they continue, quoting Civ. Code § 1798.90.5(f).

The state in this case is California. Not Texas or Kentucky or Alabama or Mississippi, Maass said.

While reciprocal data-sharing relationships between police agencies in different states are nothing new — and it's not yet clear if data has been used to investigate abortion-related cases — the Supreme Court's elimination of Roe v. Wade has changed the landscape dramatically. California has passed more than a dozen laws to enshrine the right to reproductive freedom in the Golden State, including laws that prohibit California law enforcement from cooperating with zealous out-of-state entities regarding abortions that are lawful here. Sharing information with law enforcement in states that criminalize abortion undermines these efforts, the demand letters say.

It's no secret that civil libertarians hate the surveillance and privacy invasions this technology breeds, and support attempts to get rid of such cameras completely. It's also no secret that police often find the tech useful in solving crimes.

There must be a firmer middle ground. I was a bit surprised to see that my little seaside city — which has abortion providers — has shared data with police agencies in Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia and many more, according to records Laguna Beach provided to EFF and the ACLU.

Why? We're eagerly awaiting the details from that and other cities. We'll let you know as soon as we get them.

©2023 San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.