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Privacy Concerns Lead to Potential Limits on License Plate Readers

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By Shawn Sukumar, barred in the District of Columbia. Shawn practices criminal law including cases involving traffic stops, drug offenses and DUIs.

It is no secret that people are being watched every single day by the government and various authorities. But Virginia State Senator Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax), is looking to change that, at least partially.

Senator Peterson is hoping that the bill he proposed will limit electronic surveillance of citizens by authorities when there is no warrant out for the citizen’s arrest, and there is no probable cause that a crime has occurred.

The surveillance techniques he is speaking about specifically are those found on police cars that capture individual license plates, pictures, and other person information.

His concern is that the information is collected and then stored in a bank, so at any time authorities can tap into that bank and see what specific people are doing and where they are going. And this, says the Senator, is a major invasion of privacy.

Privacy can be a tricky matter when it is taken to the courts. And although the Constitution does not directly address the matter of privacy, the Bill of Rights does.

The First Amendment allows for the privacy of beliefs while the Fourth Amendment allows for privacy of person and property and the Fifth allows for the privacy of personal information in self-incriminating circumstances.

Privacy in public areas is a broader topic, but it is one that American citizens are becomingly increasingly concerned with in a post-911 world. The invasion of this privacy began with the Patriot Act, which gives the government free reign when it comes to reading the emails, texts, and other electronic information.

And now that this invasion of privacy has moved into the streets, Senator Peterson is hoping to at least place limits on it.

The Senator is not looking to abolish the license plate readers altogether, but his bill does propose that the storage of the information on them to be limited to just seven days.

Law enforcement groups are currently lobbying against the bill, saying that often investigations are not even begun within seven days, let alone concluded. This, they say, could lead to important evidence being destroyed before it can be used.

Senator Peterson believes that now is a good time to review the bill because American is in a state of transition and so it may be “a good time to talk about civil liberties.”

And he is hoping that this bill receives more support than a prior bill he proposed, a bill that was struck down by Governor McAuliffe two years ago.