Lawsuit targets ‘expansive surveillance network’ law enforcement can access to track SC drivers
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Where you drive every day is not a secret in South Carolina.
Law enforcement has access to what is being called an “expansive surveillance network” of cameras, and according to new court filings, there is no oversight into how they use this information.
Now the South Carolina Public Interest Foundation and a Greenville resident are suing, petitioning the South Carolina Supreme Court to ban law enforcement from accessing this network until the state legislature sets parameters on how it can be used.
Across South Carolina are traffic cameras known as automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs. Many of them are permanently fixed, such as those mounted above traffic lights or on highway overpasses, while others can be put on cars and moved or temporarily set up at other locations.
Every time a car drives by, they automatically take a photo of the vehicle and its license plate and record data capturing when and where the plate was read.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, SLED, operates the system that retains all of these photos, which are deleted after three years, according to the agency’s internal policy.
“We’ve got about four million automobiles in this state. The database that SLED has is 400 million [captures],” Greenville attorney Jim Carpenter said.
Carpenter is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against SLED and Chief Mark Keel.
According to court filings, law enforcement officers from around 100 state and local agencies can access and search this information as long as they have a “legitimate law enforcement purpose,” per SLED’s policy.
“There’s no requirement of a finding from a judge that says there’s probable cause that a crime has taken place,” Carpenter said.
SLED policy also stipulates officers and analysts must have inquiry certification from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center and be granted a password-protected login from SLED to access the database.
Data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and disclosed in court filings shows this system is growing significantly as more law enforcement agencies participate and feed their own ALPR data into the database.
In 2014, cameras captured photos of 26,451,216 vehicles and their license plates. Last year, that figure had climbed to 150,738,105 images.
But there is no oversight from the state legislature into how this information is used or even authorizing SLED to establish this system in the first place.
The lawsuit argues that violates the separation of powers required in the South Carolina Constitution, as SLED is a cabinet agency that reports directly to the governor, the executive branch.
“It’s totally SLED and its associated law enforcement agencies freewheeling on their own, setting policy that is properly the province of the General Assembly,” Carpenter said, contending privacy concerns must be balanced by the branch of government that directly represents the people, the legislature.
Carpenter argues that lack of oversight also makes this system vulnerable to abuse.
“If somebody were wanting to find out where’s his girlfriend been traveling or where’s his ex-girlfriend been traveling or the guy she’s now dating, where’s he traveling, or any other illegitimate, non-law enforcement-related purpose,” he said.
A spokesperson for SLED said the agency was aware of the lawsuit but feels it would be inappropriate to comment on pending litigation.
Court filings note South Carolina’s General Assembly has authorized and set regulations for other statewide law enforcement databases, including SLED’s DNA database and the state’s body camera database.
They also cite how the legislatures in other states have prescribed rules regarding their own ALPR systems, like North Carolina, where data is deleted after 90 days.
One state lawmaker, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Richland County, has three times proposed legislation that would impose restrictions on who could access this database and for what purpose.
It would also significantly limit how long the photos and information in it are kept.
Rutherford’s bills have gotten little traction in the past, which he attributes to lawmakers not realizing how extensive this system is and how few guardrails surround it.
“Government should not grow and grow and grow and that government should not be tracking people’s movements. Those are things that should concern everybody, but they certainly concern me, and they concern a number of Republicans as well,” Rutherford, a Democrat, said.
Rutherford plans to introduce these regulations again when the new legislative session begins in January, and he is hopeful they will garner more bipartisan support this time.
“This is not communist Russia. This is the United States of America, where our movement should not be tracked by the government,” he said.
Plaintiffs are asking the state Supreme Court to hear arguments and directly rule in this lawsuit without it having to first go through a lower court, arguing this case is of great enough public importance and urgency to do that.
SLED next has an opportunity to respond to that request before justices decide if they will take the case up. If they do, SLED would then respond to the lawsuit itself; if justices decline to hear this case, plaintiffs would have to file in a lower state court.
Even if the General Assembly does pass legislation to authorize and regulate the ALPR system prior to a ruling, Carpenter said they would still ask the court to rule in this case to set legal precedent and provide guidance for future cases that may arise.
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