Georgia bill would regulate license plate readers used by police

Citing privacy concerns, House Republican leaders filed legislation this week that would regulate the license plate readers police use.

House Bill 93 — Sponsored by Deputy Majority Whip John Pezold of Columbus — would require police to delete images captured by the devices after 30 days.

Mounted on police cars, road signs or traffic lights, the readers capture images of license plates as well as the date, time and location of each scan. Police use that data to help spot stolen cars or suspects wanted on criminal charges.

“As license plate scanners become more prevalent in law enforcement I think it is important to go ahead and put some safeguards in there to avoid any problems,” Pezold said. “At the end of the day, it is about protecting liberties and freedoms of the people of Georgia.”

Pezold said he plans to add a provision to his bill that would bar police from sharing such an image with federal authorities, unless it is part of a criminal investigation. He cited a Wall Street Journal article from this week that says the federal Justice Department has been building a secret database to track the movement of vehicles around the U.S. as a way to combat crime.

Pezold’s bill has some strong Republican backing. House Majority Whip Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City is a cosponsor. And the bill has been referred to the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, which is led by another one of the measure’s GOP cosponsors, Rep. Alan Powell of Hartwell.

An official with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been vocal about regulating license plate readers, called HB 93 a “big step in the right direction.”

“Something like tracking people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy that should only be justified if it can be shown there is a legitimate law enforcement purpose for it,” said Marvin Lim, a lobbyist for the ACLU of Georgia.

The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association is critical of HB 93 — even riled by it. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, the association’s past president, said the legislation could make it more difficult for authorities to solve violent crimes. He cited a double-homicide case he has been investigating at Lake Oconee since May of last year. In that case, an elderly man was beheaded and his wife was murdered.

“Let’s say I develop a suspect today in Ohio,” he said, speaking hypothetically. “And we go up and have an interview with him and he says, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about. I have never been in Putnam County, Georgia. I don’t know where it is.’ And if I had the ability to take his tag number and feed it into my tag reader database and it showed that on May 6 his tag was seen in Putnam County, do you have any conception of what kind of evidence that would be?”

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