Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — The ACLU of Virginia has documents showing state police collected license plate information from people attending a political rally and stored that data in a massive database.
Using the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the American Civil Liberties Union found state police used automatic license plate readers on the vehicles of people attending President Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration, as well as earlier campaign rallies for Obama and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
In keeping a database of millions of license plates and targeting political activity, state police “crossed well over the line from legitimate law enforcement to oppressive surveillance,” the ACLU said.
“These drivers were not suspected of or connected to any crime — their only offense was practicing their First Amendment rights to speak freely and assemble peacefully,” Rebecca Glenberg, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia, said in a post on the ACLU website.
But Corinne Geller, public relations manager for the VSP, said police collected license plate data at political rallies purely for safety purposes; car bombs are a concern at such events. The information was sparse — just the plate and tag numbers, unless, however, those numbers related to an ongoing investigation, Geller said.
“The reason they were being used at the political events was actually at the security of the events. It’s not unusual for a stolen vehicle to be used as a car bomb or as some way to infiltrate,” Geller told Watchdog.org.
“We had no idea who went to those political rallies. Because all you were getting was a plate and a tag.”
The VSP earlier this year sought an opinion from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli on the practice of recording and keeping license data. Cuccinelli said collecting plate information in a “continuous, passive” manner — not because it’s specifically related to a criminal matter — violates Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Act.
State police now destroy license information within 24 hours of collecting it, Geller said.
But the ACLU says Virginia could be one step away from returning to its database practices, and state lawmakers must step in to prevent it.
A return to “passive data collection should not be just a bad Attorney General opinion away — our lawmakers must act to clearly prohibit the VSP from resurrecting this surveillance in the future,” Glenberg writes.
— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.