Vermont one of two states that complied with ICE search of driver database

  • An unidentified Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation officer reviews forms on April 26, 2017, at the the Pacific Enforcement Response Center in Laguna Niguel, Calif. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Allen J. Schaben

Published: 7/9/2019 10:31:46 PM
Modified: 7/9/2019 10:31:40 PM

In 2013, Vermont became one of the few states in the nation to offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Six years later, it is one of two states to have allowed federal immigration authorities to search its photographic database of drivers.

Vermont and Utah have used facial recognition technology to run searches for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement officials, according to documents compiled by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology. Vermont stopped the practice in 2017.

The searches were first reported by the New York Times and The Washington Post. The Times found that the two states were the only ones in the U.S. with undocumented immigrants licenses that are known to have complied with ICE requests to search license databases. Washington satte may have conducted searches after receiving federal subpoenas, but it’s unknown if that state complied.

“ICE was doing this to multiple states and clearly has a large-scale effort to use state agencies, state databases and state officials to advance President Trump’s immigration agenda,” Jay Diaz, a staff attorney at the Vermont ACLU, said of the newly released documents from the law center.

“That’s something Vermont needs to do everything it can to resist.”

One out of the two known ICE searches of Vermont’s driver database — and hundreds more conducted by other federal law enforcement agencies — occurred under the administration of former Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat.

Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, told the DMV to suspend the practice in May 2017, a few months after taking office. Vermont hasn’t allowed ICE or any U.S. law enforcement agency to search its database with facial recognition technology since, Scott’s administration said.

Documents provided to VtDigger by the law center show that the DMV conducted facial recognition searches for Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of ICE. In June 2016, the state searched the database for ICE in a case related to financial fraud, and in March 2017 it searched the database to aid the agency in an identity theft case, documents show.

Between December 2012 and May 2017, the Vermont DMV routinely conducted facial recognition scans for a variety of state, federal and local law enforcement agencies, according to data from the department.

In 4½ years, the department conducted 429 facial recognition searches for law enforcement agencies — comparing photos of individuals under investigation to the thousands of photos in the DMV’s database.

The bulk of the searches — 296 — were conducted for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Some of the searches were completed for local and state police, and 21 were conducted for the U.S. Marshals Service.

DMV officials said they didn’t know whether the information they provided to ICE or other law enforcement agencies led to arrests or deportations.

But the facial recognition searches raised concerns from privacy advocates, particularly because in Vermont undocumented immigrants can legally obtain credentials to drive in the state. VtDigger reported on the searches in 2016 and 2017.

In 2013, the Vermont legalized driver privilege cards, which allow state residents to drive even if they don’t have proof of U.S. citizenship.

In May 2017, in response to concerns from the ACLU that the DMV’s facial recognition program was in violation of a 2004 law restricting collection of “biometric data,” Scott shut it down.

“We agreed that the law wasn’t clear, and the governor also has a libertarian streak and he did have concerns over privacy, and we thought the important thing was to discontinue use,” said Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s spokesperson.

Col. William “Jake” Elovirta, the director of the DMV’s Enforcement and Safety Division, said the primary use of facial recognition was to keep Vermonters safe by preventing fraudulent licenses.

“The ancillary use was that you did have the ability to assist law enforcement at the time,” he said.

The Vermont DMV commissioner at the time of the searches was Robert Ide, a holdover from the administration of former Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican.

In most cases, Elovirta said, DMV officials did not know the specifics of what agencies like the FBI were investigating when they asked Vermont officials to run facial recognition searches.

They also didn’t necessarily hear back from agencies about the outcome of investigations.

Will Lambek, an organizer with Migrant Justice, an organization that advocates for immigrant farmworkers, called the DMV’s use of the facial recognition a “concerning practice.”

“We’re glad that it stopped, but this was one tool in a larger toolbox between the Vermont DMV and ICE that has resulted in the detention and deportation of many immigrants in the state,” Lambek said.

Lambek said he didn’t know whether the use of the facial recognition technology alone led to any arrests or deportations. But the organization is suing the Vermont DMV and ICE for targeting its leaders and members in retaliation for their activism.

The suit alleges that in 2014 the DMV began providing information from undocumented Vermonters’ driver privilege card applications to federal agents and “scheduling appointments to facilitate ICE arrests.”

DMV officials declined to discuss the lawsuit. But they said officials follow the state’s fair and impartial policing policy, which dictates that Vermont law enforcement agencies can only provide the federal government with information about individuals under criminal investigation.

“If an agency is looking for information from DMV as it relates to civil immigration enforcement, we cannot provide that information,” Elovirta said.

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