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Rhode Island Bill Would Limit ALPR Use By Police, Help Stop National License Plate Tracking Program

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Jan. 25, 2018) – A bill introduced in the Rhode Island House would prohibit roadway surveillance, including the use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) without a warrant in most situations. Passage into law would also place significant roadblocks in the way of a federal program using states to help track the location of millions of everyday people through pictures of their license plates.

A coalition of representatives, including four Democrats and an independent, introduced House Bill 7222 (H7222) on Jan. 18, The legislation would prohibit “roadway surveillance” and bar police from using ALPRs  unless “undertaken by law enforcement in the investigation of a particular violation, misdemeanor, or felony pursuant to a warrant or court order based on probable cause.” The proposed law would allow warrantless roadway surveillance in exigent circumstances and to locate missing persons.

H7222 would put strict limitations on the retention and sharing of data gathered by license plate readers. Sharing of information would be prohibited without a court order. Any data that does not identify a violation of the law would have to be destroyed within 72 hours unless there is a court order for its retention. All data that does identify a violation of the law would have to be destroyed within one year after the citation is resolved by administrative payment, trial, or other final disposition.

Any information gathered in violation of the law would be inadmissible in court.

“Any evidence obtained as a result of surveillance use prohibited by this chapter shall be inadmissible in any civil action, except as evidence of a violation of this section. Nothing contained herein shall be construed to preclude any investigation otherwise based upon any legally sufficient cause.”

Passage of this bill would prevent the state from creating permanent databases using information collected by ALPRs, and would make it highly unlikely that such data would end up in federal databases.


The ACLU estimates that less than 0.2 percent of plate scans are linked to criminal activity or vehicle registration issues.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tracks the location of millions of vehicles. They’ve engaged in this for over eight years, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.

State and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems, paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.

Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, passage of this legislation would take a major step toward blocking that program from continuing in Montana. The feds can’t access data that doesn’t exist.

“No data means no federal license plate tracking program,” Tenth Amendment Center founder and executive director Michael Boldin said.

Law enforcement generally configures ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of vehicles. But according to records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA also captures photographs of drivers and their passengers.

According to the ACLU:

“One internal 2009 DEA communication stated clearly that the license plate program can provide “the requester” with images that “may include vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle.” Clearly showing that occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated, a 2011 email states that the DEA’s system has the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”

With the FBI rolling out facial a nationwide recognition program in 2016, and the federal government building biometric databases, the fact that the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed location data, magnifies the privacy concerns surrounding ALPRs.

Passage of this legislation would represent a good first step toward putting a big dent in federal plans to continue location tracking, and expanding its facial recognition program. The less data the state makes available to the federal government, the less ability they have to track people in New York, and elsewhere.


H7222 was referred to House Judiciary Committee where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.