July 24 2013 12:00 AM

Area police departments scan license plates without policies for how to use the information and how long to keep it. ACLU is investigating


Due to a reporting error, Maj. Joel Maatman of the Ingham County Sherriff’s Office was incorrectly identified as Maj. Paul Maatman. 

Several Lansing area police departments have been using car-mounted automatic license plate readers to passively collect and store data on motorists — some for as long as two years — without any policy in place to govern the retention and use of the information. 

These automatic license plate readers — ALPRs — are becoming standard for modern-day law enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a recent report. The ACLU worries that the collected information could allow for the tracking of law-abiding citizens if proper polices are not in place. 

ALPRs are high-speed cameras that are attached to police cars.  A policeman can drive through a parking lot, for example, and by just turning on the camera pick up every license plate on both sides of the patrol car. Each photograph includes the date, time and location of when the plate was photographed. 

The plate numbers can then be run through a police database to check for stolen vehicles and other crimes. 

According to a report from the International Association of Police Chiefs, ALPR systems can range in cost from $10,000 to $22,000 depending on the manufacturer and system configuration. 

“As the city adds more of these devices to their fleet — which just about every police department is trying to — they will have a better picture of where you’re moving around the city,” said Lansing resident Charles Hoffmeyer, who took an interest in ALPRs when the Lansing Police Department acquired them. “And as they share this information with other police departments in the region, they’ll have a picture of where you’re going outside of the city as well.”

At least four Lansing area police departments have ALPRs: Lansing, East Lansing, Ingham County and Meridian Township. At one department, the information is stored indefinitely. Some departments have been using this technology for years, but not one has a policy on the books that outlines privacy protections for citizens or the use of the information. 

According to Lansing area police officials, the Michigan State University Police Department also has ALPRs, but the department could not be reached for comment. 

In a recent report, the ACLU outlined serious concerns related to privacy and the need for strong policies governing the use of the technology. 

“When police departments lack policies limiting access to license plate data and monitoring its use, abuse of the technology can occur,” the ACLU said in the report. Abusive use of the information, a chilling effect on civil liberties and discriminatory tracking are at risk when strong policies are not in place, the national ACLU said. 

The Lansing chapter of the ACLU plans on researching Lansing area police department polices. 

“When used with appropriate safeguards, this can be an important tool for law enforcement,” said Lansing ACLU board member Nathan Triplett. “But the recent ACLU report details the potential risks to privacy and civil liberties if the technology is used improperly.

“I think this technology carries with it a potential risk of an undue invasion of privacy and raises important civil liberties issues,” he said. “I think any technology that has the potential to aggregate this kind of data warrants some special attention.” 

The Meridian Township Police Department was the first locally to purchase ALPRs, Lt. Ken Plaga said. He said the department has had four cars equipped with ALPR units for about two years, but there is still no usage policy in place. He said one was being drafted and would be finished by September. Right now, the data is stored until the system fills up and the oldest information is replaced by the newest, he said.

During a four-hour patrol on Tuesday morning, a single scanner picked up 223 plates, Plaga said. Due to the positions of the cameras and where cars are on the road, about half of all plates get picked up by the cameras, he said. But in places like parking lots, he said, where the cars aren’t moving, the cameras can usually scan every plate. 

Capt. Jeff Murphy of the East Lansing Police Department said the department has two cars with ALPRs. He said there is no specific policy tied to the ALPRs, but that the department refers to its Code of Conduct Policy for use of the devices. He added that only detectives and system administrators have access to the data — which is retained indefinitely. 

At the Ingham County Sheriff’s Department ALPRs have been in use in two cars for about a year and a half, said Maj. Joel Maatman. He said the data is retained for one year, but no official policy is in place. 

“We just turn it on and we use it,” Maatman said.  

Lansing has yet to officially use its ALPRs, but will soon have the most of any department. 

LPD Spokesman Robert Merritt said three cars have been using ALPRs since spring 2012 and three more will be equipped.  But because no policy is in place and officers haven’t been trained to use the equipment, the department is not using the data, just storing it. He said a policy and training would likely be complete by September.

In its report, the ACLU makes several ALPR policy recommendations for police. Among others, the ACLU says police departments should not store data on innocent people for long periods and should restrict employee access to the data, allow people to request their own data and require at least annual reporting of usage.