ACLU Alleges LBPD Use Of License Plate Reader Data Illegal

By: 
Stephen Downing

In a April 19 letter addressed to Long Beach City Attorney Charles Parkin – copied to Chief of Police Robert Luna – ACLU attorney Mohammad Tajsar, representing the Southern California branch of the ACLU, alleged that the LBPD illegally shares automated license plate reader (ALPR) data with “dozens of federal and out-of-state law enforcement agencies.”

The ACLU attorney asked that the police department to “immediately impose a ban on the department” from sharing the ALPR data.

Tajsar outlined the threat ALPR surveillance practices by the LBPD has upon the civil liberties and rights of Long Beach residents and cautioned that “no jurisdiction should acquire or deploy license plate readers, given the technology’s invasiveness and the breadth of revealing information such technology can collect about individuals.”

The ACLU attorney pointed out that city ALPR systems “collect and store location information about drivers whose cars pass through ALPR cameras’ fields of view, which, after being matched to dates, times and locations, can be built into a data base that reveals sensitive information about where individuals work, live, associate, worship and travel.”

Tajsar advised Parkin that “much of this information has traditionally been unavailable to law enforcement without a search warrant” and that “the ALPR systems “are easily misused to harm minority communities – a phenomenon that has been documented for over 20 years”, emphasizing that “police often deploy license plate scanners in poor and historically over policed areas, regardless of crime rates.”

Documents obtained by the ACLU on April 6 listed dozens of federal and out-of-state agencies with which the LBPD illegally shared scanned license plate data.

Tajsar wrote that the report compiled from the documents obtained though the Public Records Act is “the latest in numerous reports which demonstrate that the department has a long-standing, multi-year practice of sharing ALPR data with out-of-state and federal law enforcement agencies,” which he charges is a violation of California state law and “the plain language of (SB 54), the California Values Act.”

The Long Beach Values Act

In addition to the California Values Act the City of Long Beach passed its own Values Act in 2018 stating its purpose “is to foster trust between the city and immigrants who contribute to the economic and social fabric of the City of Long Beach.”

Greg Buhl, a local attorney and public records researcher, says that the Long Beach Values Act puts limits on the collection, maintenance and disclosure of sensitive data and is violated by the LBPD’s data collection practices that are not directly related to a law enforcement purpose as required by the Long Beach Values Act.

Buhl described the scope of LBPD ALPR data gathering, stating, “In 2019, the LBPD scanned 24,704,972 million plates – 67,684 per day or a plate every 1.27 seconds.”

The research attorney said that the LBPD’s own data shows that 99.93 percent of the 25 million plates the LBPD scans yearly belongs to the law abiding – and that is even when you consider those with outstanding parking tickets on the wrong side of the law.”

Buhl said, “the LBPD then shares this data with practically any agency that asks, including out-of-state health departments, universities conducting ALPR research, federal agencies and data fusion centers that have a history of working with ICE, and ICE itself for a 10-month period during the height of Trump’s 2020 pre-elections deportation blitz to meet his campaign promises.”

Buhl said the LBPD violated the city’s Values Act in two ways; “First it violated the ban on collecting and storing sensitive data by creating a massive database of 50 million geolocation points capable of tracking the movements of every law abiding person going back two years, then the LBPD shared that data with agencies that conduct civil immigration enforcement.

“Even though they stopped sharing data with ICE after my public records act request uncovered it, they continue to share data with agencies that cooperate with ICE with no limits in place on how that data can be used.”

Buhl’s interest in using the Public Records Act to research LBPD surveillance practices started when two innocent protestors became victims of the LBPD’s 24/7 ALPR surveillance system, an event that was the basis of a Beachcomber Aug. 7, 2020 story, “LBPD Dragnet Snags the Innocent.” 

Buhl said – after establishing the website, CheckLBPD.org, “The LBPD used ALPR this summer as part of its looter task force with such recklessness that it not only violated the First and Fourth Amendment rights of protestors, but literally put innocent lives in danger. At least two innocent women were traumatized and detained at gun point in other jurisdictions after an LBPD officer wrongly-flagged their cars into a shared ALPR database.”

Buhl continued: “These women’s cars were flagged as belonging to dangerous felons based on no more evidence other than they had exercised their First Amendment right to attend a non-violent, day-time protest in Long Beach.”

After the department’s mistake was discovered, one of the women involved reported that Sergeant Malcolm Evans told her, ‘I don’t want to lecture anyone and I believe in your First Amendment right, but I do want this to be a lesson to you the next time you join one of these protests. Even if you don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, how easy it is for you to get caught up and mistaken for someone who’s involved in criminal activity.”

At the time the reckless ALPR incidents were exposed by this newspaper, the Beachcomber made numerous requests to the LBPD to explain the method used to obtain the women’s license plates as well as the probable cause applied to justify entry of their license plate information into the “wanted armed and dangerous” database.

The LBPD did not respond.

Buhl said, “The closest the LBPD came to an apology (to the women) was paying the vehicle impound fees.”

According to Buhl, It was the Beachcomber story about the innocent women that lead him to file the Public Records Act (PRA) requests related to the LBPD’s hot list data-sharing program that would later uncover the fact that the LBPD was sharing the ALPR data with ICE, in spite of the Values Act and in spite of public comments offered by Mayor Robert Garcia.

After an ICE raid in Long Beach in July 2019, Mayor Garcia was quoted saying, “The threats and actions by the administration of this president against the Latino, undocumented and immigrant communities are unjust and dangerous. I have communicated with our chief of police that we will not cooperate with ICE in civil-immigration arrests.” 

According to Buhl’s records research, “Five months later this trust would be violated by a private contractor who accepted an ALPR data sharing request from ICE.”

In a statement to the Long Beach Post on Dec. 21, 2020 James Ahumada, a spokesman for the mayor said, “The mayor and the City Council have made it clear that the LBPD may not share civil immigration information with ICE. The chief fixed this error a month ago and is working to ensure privacy and alignment with SB 54 and the Long Beach Values Act.”

Buhl said that the ACLU letter “means that the ICE data sharing is on-going, just with extra steps that ICE is documented to be adept at carrying out.” 

After reading the April 19 ACLU letter acquired by the Beachcomber Buhl said, “If the city were serious about protecting its immigrant community it would have refused to do business with any company that works with ICE, as Alameda did in 2018 after the passage of the California Values Act.

“Instead Long Beach continued to use the same ALPR platform as ICE, despite Vigilant Solutions (The Vendor) having a $6.1 million dollar contract with ICE that included the ability to request local police data as a selling point.”

Buhl continued, “The Long Beach Police Department then put a contractor from a private company with extensive ICE contracts (SRA Int’l/General Dynamics) in charge of its ALPR system despite that company’s own ICE contracts and the contractors past training from ICE.

“The simple act of refusing to do business with any ICE contractors would have been much more effective than the window dressing the Long Beach Values Act turned out to be.”

Long Beach Mirrors Chula Vista

On April 19, Tammy Murga, a reporter for the San Diego Tribune reported that, like Long Beach did this past year, the Chula Vista Police Department has made a request of its City Council to expand the Police Department’s ALPR program and the chief of police is “proposing to stop sharing data with all federal agencies.”

Unlike Long Beach, the Chula Vista chief has asked that the California state auditors office conduct an audit similar to four conducted last year of the Los Angeles PD, Fresno PD, Marin County and Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office which faulted all four department for irresponsible use of data and failure to conduct audits.

The San Diego Tribune article reported that the ALPR equipment, which Chula Vista began using in 2007, has been shared with hundreds of agencies, including federal agencies and that “dozens of residents have expressed continued opposition, saying “that not enough has been done” to assure the legal and promised use of the system.”

Murga reported: “While CVPD is no longer sharing data with [Border Patrol] and ICE through the LEARN database, there are still other federal immigration agencies that have access to the database,” wrote Erin Tsurumoto Grassi, a regional policy director for the nonprofit Alliance San Diego.

The actions of the Chula Vista City Council also resonated with recent reporting about the Long Beach City Council’s management of the Brown Act.

Murga reported that, “Several Chula Vista residents were also critical of the April 7 presentation by the Police Department, which included time for public comment and questions but did not answer any of the questions, which “was a total disappointment.”

Forthe.org Reporting

In a Feb. 24 article by forthe.org reporter Kevin Flores, the promises and failures to support the Long Beach Values Act of 2018 by the Long Beach mayor, City Council and chief of police – originally “hailed as a way to curb future deportations of Long Beach residents in a city where about a quarter of the population are immigrants, “…pointed to the hypocrisy of city hall promises and exposed the fact that the LBPD’s statement that “no data had been given to ICE, turned out to be false.”

The detailed forthe.org article, including the impact upon minority communities and methods used by ICE to find its way into the LBPD database can be read here: https://forthe.org/journalism/ice-lbpd-license-plate/

The ACLU Demand

The ACLU letter from attorney Mohammad Tajsar to Parkin included a 33-page, single spaced list of 288 agencies that the systems vendor, Vigilant Solutions, produced relative to ALPR data shared by the LBPD.

The ACLU attorney wrote: “Your office should end the forbidden sharing of ALPR data, and any further use of ALPRs. Please advise of us of your position by May 3.”

Tajsar concluded his letter stating, “The best way to ensure that your residents are safe from unnecessary intrusion into their safety and personal lives is to reject the use of ALPR technology altogether.”

LBPD declines to comment

The Beachcomber asked via email for comment from both City Attorney Charles Parkin and Chief of Police Robert Luna as to whether or not the LBPD intends to comply with the ACLU request or if they intend to continue with the LBPD’s ALPR data sharing practices.

Chief Luna’s spokesperson replied, “The department declines to comment. Please direct your inquiry to the city attorney’s office.”

City Attorney Charles Parkin did not respond to the inquiry by the time of publication.

 

Stephen Downing is a resident of Long Beach and a retired LAPD deputy chief of police. Stephen.Beachcomber@gmail.com

Greg Buhl, a Long Beach attorney, writer and research analyst made a significant contribution to this story. gdbuhl@gmail.com

 

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