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Public Agencies Not Required to Disclose Records of Automatic License Plate Readers

The California Court of Appeal recently held that records generated by high speed cameras that automatically scan and compile license plate images to assist law enforcement in identifying vehicles involved with suspected crimes are not required to be disclosed under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA,” Government Code §§6250 et seq.).  (American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California v. Superior Court, No. B259396 (Cal. Ct. App. May 6, 2015).)

The Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (“LASD”) both employ Automatic License Plate Reader (“ALPR”) technology to check license plates to determine whether a vehicle is stolen or connected to a crime.  The ALPR system is mounted to patrol cars or stationary structures and scans license plates in the system’s vicinity. The system records license plate numbers, as well as the time and location of the scans.  Simultaneously, the ALPR system checks the scanned license plates against a list of license plates associated with suspected crimes, known as a “hot list.”  If there is a match, the system notifies a patrol officer that there is a “hot list” vehicle in his or her vicinity.  The system also keeps a record of the scans, even if there is no match, for up to five years for possible use in later investigations. 

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California (“ACLU”) sought copies of all ALPR data collected or generated during a one-week period from both the LAPD and LASD.  When the law enforcement agencies refused, ACLU sought a court order for disclosure of the records under the CPRA.

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s denial of ACLU’s petition.  The Court of Appeal held that the ALPR system’s records were exempt from disclosure as records of law enforcement investigations under Government Code §6254(f).  Section 6254(f) authorizes a public agency to withhold “[r]ecords of . . . investigations conducted by . . . any state or local policy agency, or any investigatory or security files compiled by any other state or local police agency. . . .”    

The court recognized that the term “investigations” as used in §6254 was not defined, but that the state Supreme Court had provided some guidance as to that term’s meaning.  The fact that a report might not describe a specific crime and might be a routine police inquiry was not significant in determining whether a report was an “investigation.”  (See Haynie v. Superior Court (2001) 26 Cal. 4th 1061, 1071.)  The court found that, fundamentally, ALPR’s function was to assist law enforcement agencies in investigating suspected crimes by locating vehicles on the “hot list”.  

The court noted that the police routinely check whether a particular vehicle is stolen or otherwise connected to a crime by visually reading a license plate number and manually entering the number into a computer.  The fact that the ALPR system automates this process and conducts it on a vastly larger scale did not diminish the investigatory nature of the records. Additionally, the fact that the license plate scans were retained for up to five years was not relevant since §6254(f) did not place a time limit on the exempt status of an investigatory record.  Finally, the court noted that, at least as to §6254(f), the Legislature has been clear about what is, and is not, exempt and it is not the court’s purview to rewrite the statute. 

This case helps clarify the application of the CPRA to investigatory records generated by new law enforcement technology.