LOS ANGELES (AP) — A battle over massive systems that use cameras to monitor license plates and track drivers' comings and goings across the country has raised the ire of those who are being rebuffed in their attempts to find out how the information is being used.
The license plate scanning systems have multiplied across the U.S. over the last decade, funded largely by Homeland Security grants. But judges — including one weighing in Friday — have said people don't have the right to know.
In that case, a tech entrepreneur fighting for access to his own files is trying to make the point that people can't find out what kind of information is being collected about them and how it's being used.
"If I'm not being investigated for a crime, there shouldn't be a secret police file on me" that details "where I go, where I shop, where I visit," Michael Robertson, 47, told The Associated Press. "That's crazy, Nazi police-type stuff."
But a San Diego judge Thursday tentatively denied his request. The judge said San Diego's regional planning agency doesn't have to honor the request under California's open records law because the information captured in every scan is part of a law enforcement investigation.
Robertson's attorney said his client, who founded and later sold the MP3.com digital musical service, will appeal if Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal makes her decision final after hearing arguments Friday.
The decision comes less than a month after another state judge denied a request by the ACLU of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation for one week of records on all vehicles collected by the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The systems in use around the U.S. are governed by a patchwork of local laws and regulations that have not standardized how they're used and who has access to the information they collect.
About 7 in 10 law enforcement agencies used license plate scanners in 2012 and an overwhelming majority planned to acquire such systems or expand their use, according to a study by the Police Executive Research Forum, a research and policy group.
Civil liberties advocates say these files need to be open to public scrutiny to prevent government overreach and unconstitutional privacy invasions.
On the other side are government and law enforcement officials who say they're not misusing the systems and that tracking and storing the data can help with criminal investigations, either to incriminate or exonerate a suspect.
"At some point, you have to trust and believe that the agencies that you utilize for law enforcement are doing what's right and what's best for the community, and they're not targeting your community," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. John Gaw said.
In San Diego's case, records are kept for up to two years, but other agencies keep them five years or more and are limited mainly by server space.
"If that information is deleted or purged too quickly, then we lost that, and we can never go back," said Lt. Karen Stubkjaer of the San Diego Sheriff's Department.
In Robertson's case against the San Diego Association of Governments, he was seeking access to a sweeping system that links the San Diego Police Department, San Diego County Sheriff's Department and eight other law enforcement agencies. The sheriff's department alone has made 9.8 million scans since the system was introduced in 2009, Stubkjaer said.
Robertson has no problem with officials using the technology for legitimate purposes like tracking down stolen cars. But he says license plate readers are ripe for abuse, and there's no reason for long-term storage of data on innocent people.
"I want a strong police force," he said. "But I also want my personal freedom."
Neither ruling set legal precedent, but are part of a growing debate.
"License plate readers are part of a larger conversation," said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum. "Technology is changing how the police view crime, and it is raising a number of public policy issues: How long do you hold on to this information? And what part of this information should the public have access to?"
Tami Abdollah can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/latams
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