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October 23, 2020

Today the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the Fairfax County Police Department can continue to use automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) for mass surveillance. The ACLU of Virginia brought a lawsuit against the department in 2015 on behalf of Harrison Neal, a Fairfax County resident after then-Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed bi-partisan legislation that would have limited such use of ALPRs.

Neal submitted a Freedom of Information Act request and found that on two occasions, his license plate had been photographed by ALPRs and stored in police databases along with the dates, times and locations of the photos. Fairfax County Police have collected tens of thousands of license plates belonging to people who are not suspected of committing any crimes, but who are simply going about their day-to-day lives. This private data is stored and accessible by police for 364 days, indexed by license plate number.

“Security and privacy can both be protected without giving police the unregulated power to collect private information ‘just because’ and ‘just in case,’” said Claire Gastañaga, executive director for the ACLU of Virginia. “Where we go and when is personal. Use of ALPRs and other surveillance technology without a warrant or even the active intent to identify a particular person suspected of a crime means that police can track people who are going to protests, medical clinics and houses of worship, and this personal information sits in a database for a year whether you’re suspected of a crime or not.”

Gastañaga added: “We encourage Virginians who are dismayed by the court’s decision to overturn the ban on passive use of ALPRs for mass surveillance to become advocates in favor of legislative action to strengthen the privacy protections promised by Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act and clarify that indiscriminate pre-crime collection of data on people present at First Amendment protected gatherings, churches, medical clinics, etc. is prohibited or, at a minimum, that such data cannot be stored and used for more than 7 days after collection. The legislation then-Governor McAuliffe vetoed in 2015 would have imposed such limits.” (HB 1673 and SB 965)

Gastañaga concluded: “The ACLU of Virginia is deeply grateful to Ed Rosenthal and RichRosenthal, for the countless hours of excellent legal work on this case over the last five years and for their strong commitment to serving the public good.” 

Said Rosenthal: “This ruling leaves tens of thousands of records containing readily identifiable personal information concerning the travels of ordinary Virginia drivers unprotected from misuse. The General Assembly has the power to provide an appropriate legislative solution.” 

About Ed Rosenthal

Ed Rosenthal represents individuals and businesses at Rohrbach Rosenthal LLP in litigation involving civil liberties, civil rights, and commercial disputes. He can be reached at 700 N. Fairfax Street, Suite 220, Alexandria, Virginia. Phone: 571.255.7620.  Email: