Despite pushback by some members concerned with privacy, the Virginia Criminal Justice Services Board last week awarded $1.6 million in grants to local governments for the purchase of new license plate readers.

Those grants will allow 32 localities to purchase 212 of the devices as part of a broader award of $53.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for law enforcement equipment and training

Staff told members they could not separate the grant funding for the license plate readers from other funding for equipment and training.

The decision revived debates that occurred during the last legislative session when the General Assembly killed legislation that would have codified a 2020 Virginia Supreme Court decision allowing law enforcement agencies to use and store data from license plate readers while limiting most data storage to 30 days. 

On Thursday, critics of license plate readers repeated concerns voiced during the session that the technology threatens Virginians’ privacy.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said license plate readers reminded him of George Orwell’s “1984.”

“We want a safe state, we want safe communities, we want safe roads, but we also have to respect people’s privacy,” said Deeds. 

Other members, however, said license plate readers are already allowed in Virginia and are a useful tool for law enforcement.

“We keep talking about ‘a right to privacy.’ Nobody has a right to privacy with their license plate,”  said Caroline Circuit Court Judge Sarah Deneke. “So let’s get that right off the table.”

Craig Branch, board chair and police chief at Germanna Community College, said any restrictions on the use of license plate readers must come from the General Assembly.

“License plate readers are currently in use right now. So who are we to say you can’t get a license plate reader when it’s already allowable and being used currently?” he said.

In 2015, Virginia law enforcement used the technology to help find the gunman who shot two journalists in Roanoke during a live broadcast and then fled three hours away to Northern Virginia.

“I think we need to allow law enforcement these extra tools in their toolbox to help enforce some of these traffic incidents that are out there and recover some of these missing and exploited children that we see all across the commonwealth,” said Del. Scott Wyatt, R-Hanover. 

Whether law enforcement should be allowed to use the technology in Virginia was the subject of a 2015 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia that challenged the Fairfax County Police Department over its use of license plate readers and the storage of their data, which the group claimed violated Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act. 

The Virginia Supreme Court in 2020 sided with the police department, allowing law enforcement to continue using the readers and storing the data they collect.

In 2021, a bill carried by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, that would have prohibited law enforcement and regulatory agencies from using the devices to collect and store personal information without a warrant died in the House.

The most recent legislation on the issue would have prohibited law enforcement from using readers to enforce speed limits, traffic regulations, tolls or high-occupancy vehicle requirements. Information recorded by the plate readers would have had to be erased after 30 days unless it was being used in an active law enforcement investigation.

Despite broad early support for the measure, the General Assembly abruptly killed it during the last days of the 2023 legislative session. 

Jackson Miller, director of Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, said Thursday it was unclear why the General Assembly rejected the legislation, which he said “a corporation” requested.

He did not name the company, although Deeds spoke repeatedly about Flock Safety, a license plate reader company that has contracts with a number of local governments in Virginia. 

“The legislature has not for many years put in any legislation or restrictions for local or state law enforcement to use license plates,” Miller said. 

In the days leading up to the final votes in the House and Senate, multiple organizations, including Justice Forward Virginia, the ACLU of Virginia and the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, expressed privacy concerns and described the action as “grim and harmful” in a joint letter to lawmakers.

Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist for the ACLU of Virginia, said the groups were especially concerned with Flock Safety’s ability to share data across jurisdictions nationwide and charge localities for a subscription service.

“We don’t know what the legislature is going to do,” Weneta said. “The legislature in 2024 could simply say, ‘We’re going to ban them.’ And now we’ve spent millions and millions of dollars in ARPA funding that could be going to better options like community policing, like target investigations that have been proven to be more effective.”

This story is written and reported by our media partner the Virginia Mercury.