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License plate reader expansion in Seattle up for final vote amid privacy concerns

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(The Center Square) – A bill to expand the Seattle Police Department’s use of license plate reading technology is moving on to a full city council vote despite privacy concerns among city councilmembers.

Council Bill 120778 would expand use of Automated License Plate Reader, or ALPR, technology to 360 SPD vehicles, including six patrol boats and roughly 270 marked patrol cars.

ALPR technology combines software and hardware used for capturing and monitoring images of license plates. The software deciphers a plate number and compares that number to a list of license plates associated with open, reported crimes and missing persons.

Expanding the technology to a fleet-wide deployment is expected to cost $280,000 per year beginning this year if the bill is passed.

The Seattle City Council first approved the Seattle Police Department’s use of ALPR technology in 11 police vehicles in 2021, but currently has nine police patrol vehicles equipped with ALPR.

According to data from the Seattle Police Department, motor vehicle theft in the city has increased 33% from 2022 (6,934) to 2023 (9,189). The department believes expanding the use of ALPR allows officers to better take on the growing vehicle theft problem.

The Center Square previously noted that all data collected by the ALPR systems are stored and retained for 90 days. After 90 days pass, the data is automatically deleted unless it has been flagged as serving an investigative purpose.

Seattle City Councilmember Cathy Moore had taken exception to SPD holding on to collected data for 90 days. SPD argued that some cities that use ALPR technology hold on to data for around two years.

Moore said a 48-hour turnaround of data collected by ALPR technology should be enough. She added that she was concerned data collected would be given to out-of-state jurisdictions regarding people coming into Seattle for access to abortion and gender affirming care.

“The main issue here is how do we protect individuals who are coming to the state of Washington to access reproductive care, or gender affirming care – from being criminalized and prosecuted in non-protective states?” Moore asked during the Tuesday meeting.

Moore mentioned data presented by the American Civil Liberties Union that revealed that in 2023, 71 California policy agencies in 22 counties were sharing ALPR data with police in anti-abortion states, despite such sharing being in violation of California law.

SPD Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey affirmed that those police departments were either violating the law or were voluntarily sharing the data with other jurisdictions and that SPD would not do such with its own collected ALPR data.

According to Maxey, most SPD officers would not have access to data within the 90 days. Instead, select personnel led by a captain would have access to the data.

ALPRs have garnered legal challenges elsewhere. The nonprofit Liberty Justice Center is suing the state of Illinois, arguing its planned proliferation of the system is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted search and seizure.

The bill was passed out of the Public Safety Committee with four yes votes and Moore abstaining her vote. It now goes to the full Seattle City Council for a final vote.