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Va. police under fire for retaining license plate data

Friday - 1/17/2014, 3:58pm  ET

WASHINGTON -- Civil liberties groups are criticizing Virginia police for scanning thousands of license plates and holding on to the data even if the information does not lead to an arrest or conviction.

Former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion last year against the practice, saying that if the information gathered isn't directly related to a criminal case, it "may not be lawfully collected," The Washington Post reports.

But some law enforcement officials say the opinion is non-binding, adding that they consult with city and legal officials before collecting the data, the Post reports. Alexandria police, for example, hold on to the data for up to two years, while Fairfax and Loudon counties keep it for one year. Arlington and Prince William counties retain it for six months.

Statewide, some jurisdictions remove it immediately, the Post reports.

"They can argue that going door-to-door searching houses without a warrant would help law enforcement solve crimes, as would listening in on all phone calls," Claire Gastaņaga, executive director of the ACLU in Virginia, tells the Post.

"Bottom line: We believe the warrant requirement protects liberty while allowing appropriate law enforcement action."

Del. Richard L. Anderson, R-Prince William, submitted legislation Friday to the General Assembly to limit "the ability of law enforcement to use technology to collect and maintain personal information on individuals and organizations where a warrant has not been issued there is no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity by the individual or organization; codifies an opinion of the Attorney General regarding the Virginia Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act."

Anderson wants to turn Cuccinelli's opinion into law: "That police jurisdictions should not be retaining this data," he says.

He says it's something he hears about quite a bit from constituents, concerns over privacy, especially after the NSA's massive government collection of data.

Anderson says he agrees with the ACLU on this issue.

"Northern Virginia localities retain the data, some are for less than six months, some are for six months, it can go on, I'm fearful, for an indefinite time," he says.

Since Cuccinelli's opinion is not legally binding he says local agencies "can interpret how to implement it. And I think we owe it to localities to give them clear cut guidance."

"I'm all for empowering law enforcement to do their job, I highly respect them," he says. "I just think that there's considerable citizen concern, consternation over the collection and retention of private personal data."

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