Los Altos Police Department to “Immediately Purge” Data From License Plate Readers After One Year

Los Altos police must delete data collected through high-tech - and controversial - license readers after one year.

The slight policy change came Tuesday at the council's regular meeting. Before this, there was a one-year minimum to retain the data, now there is a one-year maximum.

Police Chief Tuck Younis, in an interview with NBC Bay Area on Friday, said has "no problem" getting rid of the data after one year, which he agreed to "immediately purge" at the end of the 365-day period from both the Santa Clara County and federal systems. The only exception will be, he said, is if it is reasonable that the information will become evidence in a criminal or civil action.

Mayor Pro Tem Jan Pepper added in an interview that she'd like to actually look at this issue again in the future, as some departments in other parts of the country purge the data in 30 days.

"I'm concerned that using it could invade people's privacy," she said.

Automatic license plate readers, mounted on police cars or on objects like road signs and bridges, use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute - and have been highly criticized by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, which has devoted a web page to the issue called "You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used to Record Americans' Movements."

But many police officers like the new technology because it saves them from having to relay a license plate number to a dispatcher or enter it into a mobile terminal in order to check it against law enforcement databases.

While the data is in use, Younis promised that the "sensitive and confidential" data would not be made public and only shared with other law enforcement.

And any officer who doesn't comply will be dealt with, Younis said.

"Any violation of the ALPR policy will result in appropriate disciplinary action up to, and including, termination and may also result in criminal prosecution," the report states.

Los Altos police received one reader in 2013. Santa Clara County Sheriff's purchased 13 readers with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, and handed them all out to each county agency.

Last year, Younis noted the readers scanned 135,941 license plates, which produced just 68 system notification alerts. They ranged from identifying vehicles associated with criminal activity to lost or stolen license plates.

In July 2012, ACLU affiliates in 38 states and Washington sent public records act requests to almost 600 local and state police departments, as well as other state and federal agencies, to obtain information on how these agencies use license plate readers. In response, the agency received 26,000 pages of documents detailing the use of the technology around the country.

According to the ACLU, New Hampshire and Maine are the only states with "positive laws" governing license plate reader laws. Click here to see the map.

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