Virginia Gov.'s Amendments Set Off Privacy, Surveillance Concerns

Gov. Terry McAuliffe hopes to find a reasonable compromise between Virginians' privacy rights and law enforcement's ability to investigate.

by Travis Fain, Daily Press / April 1, 2015
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Virginia Flickr/Chesapeake Bay Program

(TNS) -- Gov. Terry McAuliffe's suggested changes to a pair of police surveillance bills have privacy advocates pushing back from both sides of the aisle.

McAuliffe narrowed the scope of state Sen. Chap Petersen's bill on police license plate readers, which can be used to track drivers. Instead of limiting the way police can use surveillance technology in general, the bill would deal only with license plate readers.

That still covers the bill's primary intent, but these readers are "merely the latest surveillance technology," Petersen said in a blog post about the changes.

The governor also made it so police could keep these records for 60 days without tying them to a criminal investigation. The legislature's bill called for a purging after seven days.

Petersen, D-Fairfax, said the legislature won't accept these amendments when the General Assembly gathers April 15 to consider these and other gubernatorial changes. That would put the ball back in McAuliffe's court. He could sign it as the legislature prefers or veto it outright.

Privacy advocates are also upset with the governor over changes to a drone bill, which was intended to replace Virginia's moratorium on unmanned aerials with a simple regulatory structure generally requiring police to get a warrant before using a drone.

McAuliffe struck the phrase "law enforcement" from a key section, substituting "active criminal investigations" and leaving an argument that the drones could be used for a number of law enforcement purposes without a warrant. The change broadens the bill's exceptions, which had been spelled out as "purposes other than law enforcement, including damage assessment, traffic assessment, flood stage assessment, and wildfire assessment."

"These changes, if adopted, would have the same effect as an outright veto of this legislation," ACLU Virginia Claire Guthrie Gastañaga and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli wrote in a joint op-ed earlier this week.

Petersen said the license plate reader amendment is worse than a veto.

"A total disaster," he told the Daily Press. "He made it a pro-espionage bill."

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy described the changes as reasonable compromises between "Virginians' right to privacy and law enforcement's ability to investigate crimes." Some departments keep license plate data now for up to two years, he noted.

Coy said the legislature's wording could have caused problems with the use of body cameras and other technology, and that the administration wanted more study. Petersen, in his blog post, said he didn't think the bill would cause a problem with body cameras, which are "obviously relevant to the officer's interaction with a defined suspect."

Both of these bills — the license plate bill and the drone bill — passed the General Assembly unanimously. A number of other bills the governor has vetoed or amended out of the recent legislative session are more partisan affairs.

Republicans are complaining about the governor's veto on legislation that required voters to mail or fax a copy of their photo identification when seeking absentee ballots through the mail. Those seeking absentee ballots in person already have to show photo identification and the bill had exceptions for deployed military and disabled voters.

It was too much of a burden, though, on voters who don't have a photocopier or fax machine and would have to find one to send in a copy of their photo identification, Democratic legislators argued during session. They also pointed out that a mailed photocopy doesn't prove the person asking for the ballot is actually in the picture.

McAuliffe said in his veto statement that the bill would "result in the disenfranchisement of qualified eligible Virginian voters and increase the potential for costly and time-consuming litigation." Republicans have the two-thirds majority needed to overturn him in the House, but not in the Senate, where they hold only a slim majority.

Another bill McAuliffe vetoed would have capped fees payable to outside attorneys brought in to help the state on major cases. The bill included tiered percentage caps tied to the size of a suit's award, and a hard cap of $50 million.

The governor said in his veto statement that complex cases require specialization, and that the bill would "unnecessarily hamstring the Attorney General from securing the quality of legal assistance he may, on occasion, need."

©2015 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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