ACLU & Wolf Greenfield File Public Records Lawsuit Against MA Agencies For Withholding Documents Related to Automatic License Plate Reader Technology

(originally published by The ACLU of Massachusetts)

The ACLU of Massachusetts, together with law firm Wolf, Greenfield & Sacks, P.C., today 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 and associated databases.

ALPR technology combines vehicle-mounted or stationary cameras and character recognition software to capture images of license plates and convert them to text files, enabling 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.

“Automatic license plate reader technology impacts several civil liberties—from freedom of expression and association to freedom from unfettered surveillance, from protecting the privacy of people seeking abortion care in Massachusetts to defending the rights of immigrants across the country,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The public has a right to know how this technology is used in our state and local communities.”

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.

“We are proud to be helping the ACLU of Massachusetts in this important effort to investigate whether ALPR technology is being used in a manner that respects the public’s constitutional rights,” said Anant Saraswat, Counsel at Wolf Greenfield. “The agencies’ failure to turn over the relevant records frustrates the transparency necessary to ensure that ALPR technology is not being misused.”

The need for the public to have detailed information regarding this technology has become even more important after 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 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.

Reflecting the significant privacy implications of this invasive technology, many states have passed laws to regulate police use of ALPRs. In recent years, Massachusetts lawmakers have proposed similar regulations.