July 24 2013 12:00 AM

Citizen’s FOIA request for automatic license plate reader data is denied on grounds that it’s an unwarranted invasion of privacy

Charles Hoffmeyer

Wednesday, July 24 — A Lansing resident’s formal request for what he believed was public information gathered by the Lansing Police Department through automatic license plate readers has been denied. The City Attorney’s Office said the information is “personal in nature” and represents an “unwarranted invasion of the individual’s privacy.”

The Lansing Police Department has been passively collecting data on unknowing drivers for over a year using automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs. Lansing resident Charles Hoffmeyer, who also works for the Michigan State Police, believed the data was public based on what he heard at past City Council meetings and from LPD Chief Mike Yankowski.

ALPRs are high-speed cameras attached to police cars that take pictures of passing vehicles’ license plates and log information into a database after checking for stolen vehicles. LPD has had three cars equipped with ALPRs since spring 2012.

“If it’s on a vehicle, if it’s on a street, it’s public information and the police can use it however they want,” Hoffmeyer said. “If it’s public data, I should have access to it and see to what extent the police department is actually using these devices; where they’re using them; and if they’re targeting certain groups.”

Like Hoffmeyer, the American Civil Liberties Union has serious privacy concerns about ALPR technology.

On May 21, Hoffmeyer, 30, sent a FOIA request to the LPD asking for the data it had collected through ALPRs. Nine days later, his request was denied on the grounds that ALPRs are not in use. Hoffmeyer is a 2nd Ward candidate in this year’s City Council election.

Hoffmeyer appealed the denial on May 31 in an email to the city attorney and the LPD FOIA coordinator. In the email, he quoted a letter he had received on May 17 from LPD Chief Mike Yankowski that said three ALPR units were being tested. Hoffmeyer said he waited for weeks and never got a response.

On June 29, Hoffmeyer wrote a letter to Council President Carol Wood and told her about the situation and asked that she have the records released.

On July 17, he received a response from Wood and the City Attorney’s Office saying that the data existed, but that it wasn’t public under FOIA because “the information is personal in nature and its disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the individual’s privacy.”

“It struck me as quite odd,” Hoffmeyer said of the city’s FOIA denial.

Hoffmeyer was confused by the denial because Yankowski’s original defense of being able to collect the data and the city’s reason for not releasing that data seemed to contradict each other.

“The information is personal in nature because the mere fact of driving or parking one’s car in Lansing is not regarded as public information,” the city’s denial said.

But in his letter to Hoffmeyer, Yankowski cites a U.S. Supreme Court case that says there should be no expectation of privacy for drivers using public roads: “The Court ruled that a person traveling on public roads has no expectation of privacy in his movements, because the vehicle’s starting point, direction, stops, or final destination could be seen by anyone else on the road,” Yankowski wrote.

To Hoffmeyer, the denial doesn’t add up.

“Either they can collect the data because it’s public, which would mean they’d have to provide it because it’s public,” he said, “or they wouldn’t have been able to collect the data in the first place because it’s private information on citizens who have done nothing wrong. Then there’d be no data to provide. I think it should be one way or the other.”

Wood said she went along with the opinion of the city attorney, but she’d like to know the details behind the rationale.

“I’d be glad to have that discussion as to why the City Attorney’s Office believes that,” she said. “I would be more than willing to have a discussion as to why they believe that information isn’t something that should be available to the public.”

Wood didn’t have an opinion on whether the data should be public. “I have to think about that one,” she said.

A spokesperson from the City Attorney’s Office could not be reached for comment.