by Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
We rely on law enforcement to protect us. It is an often dangerous job, and we are grateful to those who take the oath to protect and serve. But, our admiration for their selflessness doesn’t grant them a blank check to ignore basic American principles.
Unfortunately, a blank check is just what law enforcement thinks it has. Working closely with a bi-partisan group of legislators and the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation, we worked to pass legislation designed place common sense regulations on the ability of law enforcement to spy on innocent Virginians. Specifically, HB 2125 (Cline R Rockbridge) and SB 1301 (McEachin D Richmond) would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before it could spy on Virginians and HB 1673 (Anderson R Prince William) and SB 965 (Petersen D Fairfax) would place reasonable limits on the ability of law enforcement to collect and store the personal information of innocent Virginians. Does this legislation place restrictions on law enforcement? Yes! Do these restrictions make us less safe? Absolutely not!
Yet, what legislators overwhelming saw as basic safeguards from law enforcement overreach (the bills received only two no votes), law enforcement and prosecutors saw as a check on their authority, and, in familiar fashion, resorted to the rhetoric of fear to oppose the bills. Those in opposition don’t like the fact that in a democracy, the people make the rules.
Here are the myths and facts surrounding this debate:
  • Myth – We must surrender our freedoms to secure our safety.
  • Fact – Our freedoms are what ensure our safety – they’re what separate us from societies controlled by the government.
  • Myth – License plate readers (LPRs) don’t collect personal information.
  • Fact – Local and federal law enforcement agencies are rapidly building systems for pooling license plate location information across jurisdictions and regions. By compiling a history of your vehicle’s movements in these databases, law enforcement can use algorithms to predict your movements. That’s because many of us are creatures of habit – we go to work, shop, and worship at a certain time each week. These databases also allow law enforcement to determine our friends, politics, and medical conditions. How? Well, did you drive your car to a political protest or an abortion provider? Then an LPR may have photographed your license in the abortion provider’s parking lot or at the site of a political protest. In addition, law enforcement can build a “digital fence” around target events (such as a political meeting) to track every vehicle that comes and goes. Thus, while law enforcement cannot force a political group to hand over its membership list, it can skirt this prohibition by deploying LPRs around the political group’s meeting location. Though this isn’t as precise as getting a group’s membership list, it still gives law enforcement a picture of who participates in the meetings. And, if law enforcement does this during each political meeting, it will also have a good idea of who the more active members are. It’s that simple.
  • Myth – Law enforcement doesn’t abuse this power.
  • Fact – Recent reports have shown that in states like Minnesota, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and North Carolina law enforcement personnel have used data inappropriately to stalk women. In one case, a police officer hacked into the private email accounts of fellow police officers to pry into the private comings and goings of an ex-girlfriend.
  • Myth –Requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before it could use a drone to spy on you would make us less safe.
  • Fact – Nothing in the legislation limits the ability of law enforcement to deploy a drone to keep us safe. Under the drone legislation, there are exceptions built in to ensure that law enforcement can use drones to track individuals during an emergency situation. And, in all other situations, law enforcement can use a drone to track a person, they just need to get a warrant first – just like they would if they want to search your house.
  • Myth – Restricting the ability of law enforcement to collect and store the personal information of innocent Virginians would harm public safety.
  • Fact – Nothing in the legislation limits the ability of law enforcement to deploy surveillance technologies during an active investigation. In fact, the legislation expands the existing authority of law enforcement by permitting the unlimited use of license plate readers provided that the data collected is purged after seven days or after it is no longer needed in an investigation. Under current law, as interpreted by Attorney General Opinion 12-073 (February 2013), law enforcement does not have this authority.
  • Myth – This legislation would prohibit law enforcement from using body cameras.
  • Fact – This legislation would do nothing to restrict the use of technology if law enforcement shows a need for the information and the information gathered will be evaluated promptly and purged if not needed for a law enforcement purpose. Police body cameras would clearly fall into this category, particularly if the body camera policy follows our suggestions. As research shows, the use of body cameras can reduce use of force instances, thus establishing a clear need. In addition, as we recommend, body camera footage should be promptly evaluated to ensure law enforcement is acting appropriately.
Want to stay informed about our work to rein in the surveillance state?  Continue to follow our blog, and check out our Facebook and Twitter for breaking news!  And, sign up to be a grassroots advocate.

Stay informed

ACLU of Virginia is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National