Even if you’ve never been a suspect in a crime, some Yakima County law enforcement agencies may have publicly accessible records of your movements and whereabouts if you drive regularly.
Local agencies, including the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, are among those nationally that in the last decade have begun using devices called automatic license plate readers that record the time, date and location of vehicles in their line of sight.
The sheriff’s office employs two such devices, which are installed in patrol cars and operate continuously as deputies drive around. The Toppenish Police Department has one license plate reader and will soon have two. The Sunnyside and Yakima police departments both have one automatic license plate reader, but both are currently out of use.
Police say the devices, which are normally attached to patrol cars, help identify stolen vehicles or drivers with arrest warrants issued against them, and can be useful when an Amber Alert is activated. But civil rights advocates say their use is virtually unregulated and that inconsistent policies on storing and using the information puts the privacy of average residents at risk.
Specifically, the machines can collect enormous amounts of information, and enough of it could enable someone to find out where a specific car has been seen and where it has traveled to.
“Right now, there’s no concrete law addressing how these devices should be used,” said Jamela Debelak, technology and liberty director for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The government should not be collecting location data on people who are currently just driving around.”
Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin said officials access the information “on a need-to-know basis,” but that anyone can request specific information not related to an ongoing investigation under the state Public Records Act. Irwin said the department has been using the devices for four to five years, but the database is rarely utilized except by the Violent Crimes Task Force.
“It can be used in targeted areas, but it is also being used when a deputy drives as he or she is going about their business,” Irwin said.
Sheriff’s office Lt. Brian Winter said at least “99 percent” of the time patrol cars are reading license plates in public places where police have every right to be patrolling.
“People don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy for a license plate that the state requires on their vehicles while they’re driving on a public roadway,” Winter said.
The Yakima Police Department used one of the devices until April 2012, when it broke. The city intends to fix it, but has had trouble contacting the manufacturer for maintenance.
“We have been trying to get our IT department to resolve the issues,” Yakima police Chief Dominic Rizzi said.
Wayne Wantland, the city’s communications and technology manager, said records are destroyed two years after they’re collected. The city currently has all information collected by the device from August 2011 to April 2012.
The Sunnyside Police Department has no policy for when the information should be destroyed, but acting police Chief Phil Schenck said he’s not sure if that means some of that data hasn’t been destroyed over time.
“It’s mostly useless information,” Schenck said. “It’s so much information, for people looking for something specific to be able to find that needle in the haystack is probably not so simple.”
Toppenish has employed one automatic license plate reader since 2008 and recently received a grant through the state Auto Theft Prevention Authority to purchase a second one, Capt. Curt Ruggles said.
In 2012, the Toppenish Police Department used the device to recover three stolen vehicles and made arrests in the course of two of those recoveries, Ruggles said.
Agencies that receive grants for the devices through the Auto Theft Prevention Authority have to file quarterly reports on their use, Executive Director Michael Painter said. But the timeliness and thoroughness of the reports the authority receives are varying, Painter said, and the authority doesn’t currently use them to measure effectiveness.
“The data is reported to us, but we don’t chronicle it and mine it or evaluate it,” Painter said. “We’re just looking for local reports of how the data is being collected. It isn’t as widespread or as consistent as we’d like.”
The State Patrol uses license plate readers at two Seattle-area ferry ports to look for stolen vehicles, and another in the Vancouver area to check for license plate fraud, spokesman Bob Calkins said. The State Patrol has mobile units in Spokane, Tacoma and Bellevue that use license plate readers, but none in Central Washington.
The state also uses license plate readers at its 12 commercial vehicle weigh stations.
Calkins said the data collected by the state’s license plate readers is destroyed after 60 days. Washington state license plates incidentally recorded by the license fraud unit in Vancouver are deleted immediately, he said.
Debelak, of the ACLU, said the state chapter found 22 law enforcement agencies statewide that use automatic license plate readers in a 2011 study. Last week, the national ACLU released a report on data from 38 states and the District of Columbia, excluding Washington state, saying the number of license tag captures has reached the millions.
Although less thorough than GPS tracking, which requires a warrant unlike license tag screening, the civil rights group says the devices can produce some of the same information on residents’ lives, including what businesses or residences they frequent.
Only five states have laws governing license plate readers, according to the ACLU study. Washington state currently has no regulations regarding the use of the devices, but Debelak said the ACLU has produced a rough draft of legislation it is hoping lawmakers will take up in the next legislative session.
“There’s no standard as to whether it would be a constitutional violation, but we think it’s close,” she said. “We began talking to legislators last year to see if they might be interested, and discussions have begun now to lead up to the next legislative session.”
At least one Yakima-area lawmaker, Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, says he is very receptive to proposing regulations on the use of the devices. In the most recent legislative session, Taylor unsuccessfully pushed for strict regulations on the use of unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, otherwise known as drones, by state and local agencies.
He said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are aware of some of the concerns raised by the use of license plate readers, and that it has come up in working groups as something to be addressed with other privacy issues related to technology next session.
“There’s discussion as to whether a broad piece of legislation will hammer down those issues or if they need to be dealt with on an individual basis,” Taylor said. “We need to make sure to protect people’s privacy.”
• Mike Faulk can be reached at 509-577-7675 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mike_Faulk.