License Plate Readers Face Legal Challenges in South Carolina – Government Technology | Episode Movies

(TNS) – You probably don’t even notice the cameras. They are mounted on bridges and police cars. They sit on poles extending from mobile trailers and watch cars go by. But what they’re really watching is your license plate.

These automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) are said to be part of a vast and growing system of “unlawful and unaccountable surveillance” overseen by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, according to a petition filed Thursday morning in the state Supreme Court .

The surveillance produces a database called the “Back Office,” which the petition says contains about 400 million time-stamped and geolocated images of license plates that will be retained for three years.

That vast trove of data, which consists mostly of information belonging to law-abiding drivers caught in a random surveillance flagnet, is accessible to nearly a hundred law enforcement agencies with little oversight, according to court records. This means that police can track cars in a given area or a motorist’s movements across the city or state without court approval or oversight, which is typically required in surveillance programs.

“SLED has not yet been served,” said Renée Wunderlich, director of public information at SLED. “SLED has no comment pending litigation.”

The petition, filed by the South Carolina Public Interest Foundation and the Policing Project at New York University School of Law, alleges that SLED exceeded its legal authority and circumvented legislative and administrative processes in building the wide-ranging surveillance network.

“We take no position on whether or not ALPRs are legal,” said Annie Hudson-Price, senior counsel with the Policing Project. “We say that a law enforcement agency like SLED cannot unilaterally adopt such a program without going through the democratic process.”

Based at the NYU School of Law, the Policing Project describes itself as an advocate for transparency and democratic accountability in law enforcement.

The petition seeks permission to bring a lawsuit against SLED and its boss, Mark Keel, directly in the state Supreme Court to prevent the agency from operating the program.

According to the petition, the agency’s own records show that the program has experienced explosive growth since its inception a decade ago.

Requests for information contained in court records show that ALPRs captured approximately 26 million license plate images in 2014. Last year they recorded over 150 million.

“This continues every month, with more and more people on the streets of South Carolina capturing their information without their knowledge and without enforceable restrictions on how it’s used,” Hudson-Price said.

But SLED does not operate the ALPR system alone. The system represents a significant partnership between SLED and other law enforcement agencies. While SLED maintains a back office and a number of mobile and fixed ALPR cameras, the bulk of the data collection will be performed by local law enforcement agencies, according to the documents submitted with the petition.

As of 2015, both the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the Columbia Police Department participated in the ALPR program, according to records filed with the court.

This treasure trove of data is in turn available to local law enforcement and federal agencies, who only need to certify that they have a legitimate interest on the part of law enforcement or public safety to look up where a license plate was located and when.

The International Association of Police Chiefs warned that ALPRs “could make citizens more cautious about exercising their protected rights to freedom of expression, protest, association and political participation because they find themselves under constant surveillance.”

“ALPRs may not seem as sexy as facial recognition to some people, but they can be downright invasive,” Hudson-Price said.


The technology at the heart of this lawsuit is not a single device. Instead, it’s a multi-part system of cameras running special software, a database capable of storing hundreds of millions of license plate images, and “hot lists” of interesting vehicles.

In its own policy document on the use of ALPRs, SLED described three main variants of the camera component: fixed units attached to a structure such as a bridge or traffic barrier, mobile units attached to police vehicles, and portable units that can be moved between different ones locations.

License plates recorded by ALPRs are then fed into the back office managed by SLED. These images of license plates are digitally tagged with the location, date and time they were taken, according to court records. Optical character recognition software is used to identify the letters and numbers on the license plate, allowing the database to be searched.

While similar ALPR technology is in use in many states, plaintiffs argue that South Carolina gives law enforcement agencies too much access to the data with insufficient oversight: SLED, Back Office’s entire database holds over 2,000 officers from 99 different law enforcement agencies available to petition.

SLED claims it only has five trailer-mounted portable units and one mounted unit, according to a document included in court filings. However, the agency announced that it collected ALPR data from 48 different agencies.

In its policy, which is contained in court documents, SLED specifically states that the operation of ALPRs must be limited to officers with special training who have been granted authorization by SLED to access the database.

Agencies are also required to keep and regularly review logs of requests to the back office.

At the heart of the case is the allegation that SLED’s implementation of the ALPR program is undemocratic. In conducting the program, the petition argues that SLED violated established standards of constitutional government, legal oversight and administrative process.

“A sprawling and unsanctioned government program bypasses the constitutional process and undermines the separation of executive and legislative branches,” the petition reads. “If SLED is to conduct a nationwide ALPR surveillance program, the elected officials must approve it.”

The filing, filed on Thursday – dubbed the Petition of Original Jurisdiction – aims to bring the case to the Supreme Court immediately. Plaintiffs argue that the move is necessary because the ALPR program is “spreading rapidly” and has “the potential to cause irreversible harm to both citizens and the state.”

Through three pleas in law, plaintiffs allege that by creating and using a mass data collection tool, SLED gave itself powers beyond those conferred on it by South Carolina law. The petition argues that the operation of the ALPR program has expanded SLED’s constitutional authority beyond legal meaning, to the point that it challenges South Carolina’s constitutional separation of powers.

“We’re just trying to get the court to affirm this basic principle of administrative and constitutional law that an agency must not exceed its enabling legislation,” Hudson-Price said.

The petition does not deny that SLED has a mandate to conduct criminal investigations or that lawmakers have previously “passed dozens of laws authorizing SLED to operate specifically enumerated databases,” including DNA databases.

But the filings argue that no statute or statute has ever given SLED the authority “to engage in mass data collection through the unregulated, widespread, and technology-enhanced surveillance of individuals who are not suspected of legal wrongdoing.”

Finally, the filings argue that since the ALPR program was essentially a new regulation, SLED should not be allowed to operate it because the agency did not submit it for public scrutiny as required by South Carolina’s Administrative Procedures Act.

The process would require SLED to notify the public and provide an opportunity to comment before the program is rolled out.

This process is no stranger to SLED. According to the petition, the agency’s DNA database, unified standards for reporting crimes and breathalyzer testing program were only established after a public “notice and comment” process.

©2022 The State distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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