Seventy-one California law enforcement agencies have been accused of improperly sharing license plate reader data with anti-abortion states, potentially threatening women’s access to health services in California. But at least one of those agencies is fighting back, accusing civil rights groups of using abortion privacy to promote “lawlessness.”
More than a dozen states have banned abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Thousands of pregnant women have been traveling to places like California or Illinois to obtain family planning services. But states like Idaho have already passed laws limiting travel for abortion, and more could follow.
California lawmakers foresaw potential restrictions on out-of-state abortion travel after Roe was overturned. They passed AB 1242 in 2022 to protect out-of-state abortion seekers from reprisal.
Police Accused of Aiding Anti-Abortion States
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently sent a letter to 71 California law enforcement agencies accusing them of illegally sharing automated license plate reader (ALPR) data with states that criminalize abortion. The organizations gave the agencies until June 15 to stop the data sharing or face legal action.
According to the Sacramento Bee, these agencies include the Folsom Police Department, as well as law enforcement agencies in Contra Costa, El Dorado, Fresno, Humboldt, Imperial, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Madera, Marin, Merced, Orange, Placer, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Joaquin, Santa Clara, Solano, Ventura and Yolo counties.
Sacramento Sheriff Fires Back
One of the agencies accused of illegally sharing data — the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office — not only denies the claim, but has accused the civil rights groups of ‘lying’ in order to promote a broader soft-on-crime agenda.
The sheriff’s office tweeted the following Friday:
"Law enforcement agencies commonly use information from License Plate Readers (LPRs) to investigate serious crimes, such as homicide, child kidnappings, human trafficking, and drug trafficking across state borders. However, some organizations, such as the ACLU and EFF, have lied that law enforcement sharing this information is an attempt to violate people’s legal rights. These false claims are intentional and part of a broader agenda to promote lawlessness and prevent criminals from being held accountable."
What ALPRs Actually Show
ALPRs do not include a person’s medical history. However, there's concern that the data they do show could be used to determine if and where a person has obtained abortion care out of state.
Per the EFF’s website:
ALPRs collect license plate numbers and location data along with the exact date and time the license plate was encountered. Some systems are able to capture make and model of the vehicle. They can collect thousands of plates per minute. One vendor brags that its dataset includes more than 6.5 billion scans and grows at a rate of 120-million data points each month.
When combined, ALPR data can reveal the direction and speed a person traveled through triangulation. In aggregate over time, the data can reveal a vehicle’s historical travel. With algorithms applied to the data, the systems can reveal regular travel patterns and predict where a driver may be in the future. The data also reveal all visitors to a particular location.
The data generally does not include the driver’s name. However, law enforcement officers can use other databases to connect individual names with their license plate numbers.
In addition to capturing license plate data, the photographs can reveal images of the vehicle, the vehicle’s drivers and passengers, as well as its immediate surroundings—and even people getting in and out of a vehicle. A 2009 privacy impact assessment report indicates that the photographs may even include bumper stickers, which could reveal information on the political or social views of the driver.
Read more at the Sacramento Bee.