House chair wants non-criminal tracking data tossed

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  • January 14, 2013 - 10:12 PM

The chair of a key Minnesota House committee said Monday that cops should not be storing license plate tracking information on law-abiding citizens.

The comments, from civil law committee chairman Rep. John Lesch, foreshadow the battle that privacy advocates and law enforcement groups are likely to wage over license plate readers at the Capitol this session. Police across the state regularly employ license plate readers to catch criminals in real-time by automatically checking vehicles against state databases.

But those readers also store exact location information on millions of regular vehicles, which is kept in public databases that are subject to open records requests. There is broad agreement that the data should be made private, but differing views on whether the state should put retention limits on the so-called "non-hit" information.

“I don’t think the police department or government has any business holding information from individuals who are not part of an active investigation," said Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who expects license plate reader legislation to drop in the next two weeks.

Minneapolis and St. Paul currently keep the non-hit data for 90 says. Law enforcement groups are expected to argue that some retention is necessary because suspects are sometimes not known until long after a crime. Lesch said the question is "moot."

"There are those who think, 'Well wait a second, what about if a year from now we find out that one of the hits was from a notorious bank robber or drug dealer -- whatever -- and we want to know where he was a year ago in order to establish modus operandus or a pattern?' Or what have you," said Lesch, who is also a St. Paul criminal prosecutor. "And in my mind, that treads over the line of civil liberties.”

An outside panel of experts that makes recommendations surrounding law enforcement issues declined to weigh in on the retention time question.

“The solution is simply that there is no justification for retention of data unless there is an active probably cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior," Lesch said.

Separately, the Department of Administration is mulling a request from Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to make license plate data private. The data was made temporarily private while the request is pending. The public can make comments on that reclassification until Jan. 30 (instructions here).

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