In December 2022, the ACLU of Massachusetts, together with law firm Wolf Greenfield, filed a lawsuit against two Massachusetts agencies for failing to produce public records regarding the state’s use of automatic license plate reader (ALPR) technology.
ALPR technology combines vehicle-mounted or stationary cameras with character recognition software to capture images of license plates and convert them to text files. This enables government agencies to continually track and record the movements of all vehicles that pass each camera’s lens. These records are retained in local, state, and regional databases. As the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recognized in the 2020 Commonwealth v. McCarthy decision, the warrantless use of such cameras to monitor movements and real-time location can implicate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
ALPR technology implicates several civil liberties issues, and the need for the public to have detailed information has become even more important since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. With several states banning or severely limiting abortion, ALPR technology now poses a greater privacy threat. Police and private individuals in some states may seek location data showing people traveling to Massachusetts for reproductive care in order to use that evidence for civil and criminal penalties. At the same time, federal immigration authorities have bought and used ALPR data from local police to track immigrants across the country. The technology also jeopardizes rights to free expression, association, and speech.
The ACLU submitted two public records requests in May and October 2020, seeking information from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) and the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS). To date, however, the agencies have failed to adequately search for and provide records responsive to several of the requests. The new lawsuit demands EOPSS and CJIS comply with the Public Records Law and immediately turn over all relevant records to the ACLU.