Q: Some time ago a car was parked for several weeks in line with our driveway on a narrow street. Though parked legally as far as we knew, this posed a hazard, and safer places were available nearby. I called the Allentown police to ask if they could identify the owner from the license plate, so that I could call the person to ask that the car be moved. The police were very nice, and said they'd send an officer to see if the car was parked legally, but added that they are not allowed to provide information obtained from 'running the plate.' I think that's a silly provision in light of all the 'right to know' legislation. License plates are issued by the state, and there is no reason to keep registrants' names secret. It costs money to dispatch police for a service I could provide as a common courtesy. Assuming this policy is state law, whom should I contact to suggest a change?
— Arthur Weinrach, Allentown
A: In a culture where "road rage" is a familiar phrase, there's good reason to shield driver's license and vehicle registration information from ready public access. It would be too easy for anyone to identify and find a driver to retaliate for a violation of motoring etiquette, real or imagined. Even apart from roadway disputes, personal information from PennDOT could be used to help track down domestic violence or other targets.
When we discussed this by phone recently, you agreed that it's reasonable to protect this kind of information, Arthur. You also said your parked car problem turned out to be temporary and was amicably resolved.
In addition to regulations in Pennsylvania and other states, federal law strictly controls the use of private information contained in motor vehicle records. The federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act was prompted by the 1989 killing of television star Rebecca Schaeffer. The man who killed the actress got her address from a private investigator who'd obtained the information from California license records.
The law prohibits states and their employees from releasing names, addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers and photographs from motor vehicle records without the subject's consent. When South Carolina challenged the law as a violation of states' rights, the U.S. Supreme Court not only upheld it, but did so in a rare unanimous decision in January 2000.
What fired up my engine regarding this issue was a recent report on the NPR radio program "On the Media" in which Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter Eric Roper discussed his August story revealing that city police used automatic license plate recognition technology to scan nearly 5 million plates during the first seven months of 2012, including Roper's personal plate seven times. The records indicated when he drove to work one morning, when he went home in the evening, even when and where he parked several times late at night at a friend's house.
How did Roper know all this? He filed a request for his own plate's information under Minnesota's open-records law, and police provided it. Roper was given only the times and locations of his license being captured by the scanners, and no personal information — name, address, or anything else. In Minnesota, you need to request data on specific license numbers, and will obtain times and locations at which the camera "saw" those plates. You can't simply ask, "Where has Jane Doe's car been for the past three days?"
Still, someone could discover the residence of an ex-spouse, for example, simply by knowing the person's car routinely is parked at a specific address. The American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates are concerned, chiefly because police gather information on all motorists, not just those legitimately suspected of criminal activity, and because there are few controls on how long the data can be stored. "While we don't know the full extent of this problem, we know that responsible deletion of data is the exception, not the norm," the ACLU wrote in a July editorial.
"The places you go say a lot about who you are," an ACLU staff attorney added on the organization's website. "If the government knows where you shop, where you worship, who you visit, and where you go to the doctor, it can put together a picture of your entire life." Maine and New Hampshire have imposed time limits on data storage, and the ACLU urges other states to map a similar course.
In Pennsylvania, police are forbidden from releasing personal information from PennDOT's database or from criminal records, regardless of how the data are collected, said state police spokesman Trooper Adam Reed. "We have to sign privacy documents … [indicating] that we can't disclose information" other than for legitimate law enforcement purposes, whether from a license plate reader or from running a driver's record at a routine traffic stop, Reed said.
Twenty-five license plate readers on loan from the Pennsylvania Auto Theft Prevention Authority were installed on state police cars across Pennsylvania, including two from the Bethlehem barracks, from 2009 until early last year, when they were returned to the authority for use at the local level, state police Lt. Jeffrey Hopkins said. The results were unimpressive. For example, of 3.3 million plates scanned in 2011, only 30 stolen vehicles were identified. Hopkins said state police have no plans to acquire readers of their own. Regarding the ACLU's concern about lengthy information retention, state police deleted the data at the end of every work shift, he said.
The systems also are used for parking enforcement, including in Allentown. The city Parking Authority's cameras are tailored specifically to recognize parked vehicles that have overstayed their welcome in limited-time zones. A camera on a roving authority vehicle records a parked car's license and location, and the time, and if the vehicle exceeds the time limit as detected in a subsequent pass by the authority car, the computer alerts the driver and a citation is written. The system replaces the old procedure of marking the tires with chalk.
However, the authority's license readers are not linked to police or PennDOT databases, Executive Director Tamara Dolan said. The officers who write tickets don't even know the identities of the vehicle owners. Fewer than 10 of the authority's 38 employees have access to vehicle registration information, and they sign security breach waivers and are fully informed of their duty to protect private information, Dolan said: "We're really strict on protecting the privacy of vehicle owners and their registration information."
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