The proliferating use of automated license-plate readers by California law-enforcement agencies is bad enough in itself for myriad reasons involving the constitutionally protected privacy of all Californians.
But when a police department is sharing the photos of out-of-state plates with law enforcement agencies in places that have recent laws banning not only abortion, but that track down their residents traveling to pro-choice states such as California, the intrusion into Americans’ individual right to travel and to seek medical care is an outrage.
But that’s just what the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is doing, according to the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“According to documents that the Sheriff’s Office provided EFF through a public records request, it has shared license plate reader data with law enforcement agencies in states that have passed laws banning abortion, including Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas,” Andrew Sheeler of the Sacramento Bee reports.
“Adam Schwartz, EFF senior staff attorney, called automated license plate readers ‘a growing threat to everyone’s privacy … that are out there by the thousands in California.’”
Electronic Frontier has sent Sacramento Sheriff Jim Cooper a request that the Sheriff’s Office stop sharing license plate data with police of state agencies elsewhere who could try to use it in the prosecution of women coming to California seeking an abortion.
We applaud that effort, both because the sharing is not right, and because it’s against the law.
California’s Senate Bill 34, passed in 2015, restricts police and sheriff’s departments from giving automated license plate reader (ALPR) data with out-of-state authorities.
The bill, authored by former Sen. Jerry Hill of San Mateo, says that it “would, in addition to any other sanctions, penalties, or remedies provided by law, authorize an individual who has been harmed by a violation of these provisions to bring a civil action in any court of competent jurisdiction against a person who knowingly caused the harm.”
So there is quite rightly legal action that could be taken by any woman traveling to California to seek an abortion who has her privacy rights violated by police or sheriff’s departments here.
And Sheriff Cooper of Sacramento should know that. When he was an assemblyman representing Oak Grove, he voted for that bill.
But his department isn’t the only one violating the law.
This spring, EFF found data showing that 71 law enforcement agencies in 22 California counties were sharing license-plate information and thus going around the established state law.
After the practice was reported, Cooper went on the defensive, claiming on Twitter that EFF was “protecting child molesters, fentanyl traffickers, rapists and murderers.”
He says the law allows his office to share license plate data with other law enforcement agencies and that “criminals are not aware of jurisdictional boundaries, much less state lines.”
Certainly he’s right to say that, by nature, crooks don’t care about whether or not their criminal behavior crosses state lines.
And it does not appear that so far police in other states have prosecuted one of their residents for coming to California seeking an abortion by using pictures of their license plates.
But police agencies around the state should follow the lead of the city of Woodland, whose police Chief Derrek Kaff wrote to EFF: “We have implemented a revised protocol that does not allow the sharing of ALPR data with any out-of-state agencies. As a department we are committed to upholding the privacy rights of individuals and reinforces our dedication to adhering to the principles of the Fourth Amendment.”