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Vermont Bill Targets License Plate Readers

Lawmakers are considering limiting the amount of time that police in Vermont can store information compiled by automatic license plate readers that have the ability to gather troves of information about the whereabouts of vehicles .

State Sen. Tim Ashe, a Democrat/Progressive from Burlington, has introduced a bill that would require police to delete electronic data collected by automatic license plate readers after six months. Information from the devices, which can scan thousands of license plates per hour, is currently stored tin a law enforcement database for four years. The Senate Transportation Committee is scheduled to take testimony on the bill this morning.

More than 30 law enforcement agencies across the state have deployed the readers in recent years, with much of the money to buy them coming from grants. In the Upper Valley, police in Hartford and Springfield, Vt., and the sheriff’s departments in Windsor and Orange counties use the scanners.

“It allows for the retention of information collected by the readers only for the amount of time that they are legitimately needed for law enforcement purposes,” Ashe said in discussing the need for the legislation. “Should the government be making a file, even if not directly, that could tell people where you’ve been on a Sunday night? They’re collecting and storing a lot of information that has nothing to do with police activities, and could be creepy for people.”

Ashe said that six months is the average length of time for the judicial system to handle a traffic court case and potential appeals.

Police say the electronic plate readers are an efficient tool that can help them identify and apprehend criminals and retroactively gather evidence on criminal suspects.

Privacy advocates are concerned that police could exploit the trove of information without warrants. Four years of data, they say, could essentially provide a detailed map of a driver’s movements and could be easily abused.

Citing privacy concerns, Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton last year declined a federal grant to purchase a plater reader for his town’s police department .

“We’re really glad a bill has been introduced and hope there will be a serious discussion about (the readers) and ... limits on government practices that we think need limiting,” said Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert. “The retention time is what we have the most concern about. (Four) years is an outlier of enormous proportions. There is no reason police should be gathering information on drivers who are not suspected of any crimes and happened to be captured by one of the (readers) around the state.”

New Hampshire passed a law that all but forbade law enforcement from using the plate readers. There are exemptions, however, for monitoring bridges and other infrastructure.

It is unclear how Vermont law enforcement will react to the bill.

Keith Flynn, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety, said that police acknowledge the need to properly manage the data.

“The department recognizes the need for governance as it relates to policies for automatic license plate readers including retention of information, maintenance of records, and audits of information received and dispensed,” Flynn said in a written statement. “We look forward to being part of the discussion with the Legislature about this important law enforcement tool.”

The readers were introduced in Vermont in 2008 with almost no public notice. It was only after the ACLU, along with its state chapters, filed a request for law enforcement records around the country last year that the scope of the plate readers’ data collection became apparent.

Ashe, the state senator, said he became attuned to the issue when he learned of the ACLU’s efforts. While he said a limit on data storage established by lawmakers is a possibility, Ashe said his initial goal was to spark debate .

His bill allows for prosecutors to obtain a court order in order to retain specific information collected by a plate readers if they can show cause.

“This is an issue that the Legislature hasn’t had a role in,” Ashe said. “I think it’s hard to deny that the Legislature should put a stamp of approval, or not, on the practices being conducted by the Department of Public Safety.”

The bill will start in the Senate Transportation Committee, and then likely be considered in the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Ashe is a member of the Judiciary Committee.)

The information captured by plate readers in the state is sent to the Vermont Fusion Center in Williston, Vt., which is overseen by the Vermont State Police. The federal government also has access to the data, the ACLU said, though the extent of federal involvement and retention is unclear.

“If the legislative process determines that the information is being subsequently transmitted to a national database, then that’s something we will try to address,” Ashe said.

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.