A fruitless legislative showdown over how long cops can hang on to information gathered by high-tech license plate readers means the debate is destined to continue at the Capitol over citizens' right to privacy in the face of increasingly sophisticated crime-fighting capabilities.
Despite several hearings and hours of testimony, the Minnesota Legislature for the second year in a row failed to pass laws surrounding automated license plate readers — small cameras mounted in squad cars or in fixed mounts that scan license plates and store information on where and when the car was located when the scan was taken.
"I'm definitely disappointed that we didn't get a bill this session that would adequately protect citizens' privacy," said Benjamin Feist, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. "However, it was better that the bill died rather than repass a bill that would not have sufficient protections. I think that was the only option at the end of session."
Revelations about the devices in the wake of spying by the National Security Agency raised calls for standards on how police classify and retain plate-reader and other data. Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law a measure requiring enforcement to get a "tracking warrant" before using cellphone tracking devices that surreptitiously collect and store the information of cellphone users in a given area.
A Minnesota Poll in February found that at least 63 percent in the state were at least "somewhat" worried about the amount of personal information the state and law enforcement agencies collect on average citizens.
House and Senate bills had wide support among lawmakers, but differed starkly.
The House measure, sponsored by Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, proposed that the license plate "hits" on innocent people be deleted immediately unless the vehicle had been stolen, the owner had an outstanding warrant, or the information related to an active investigation.
A Senate bill carried by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, and backed by law enforcement would allow police to keep the information for 90 days and use it for broader purposes.
The two sides were unable to reach a compromise and no bill reached a final vote before the Legislature adjourned last week. The episode is similar to what occurred in the 2013 legislative session, when the House passed a bill requiring zero-day retention that later stalled in the Senate.
The state administration department ruled last year that the data should be classified as private after Star Tribune coverage of the issue led to numerous requests for data on the whereabouts of specific vehicles. That classification expires next year.
A valuable tool for police
Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, said that this year one of the unbridgeable issues was how long data could be stored.
"What it simply boils down to in my opinion is how long does the public want law enforcement to potentially have access to data that will help them solve criminal activity?" Franklin said. "The sooner you eliminate that data, the chances of its recovery and/or a solution to crime goes down considerably."
Franklin said that under a state administration department ruling, police can keep license plate data for 90 days. Franklin said license plate readers led to the 2011 capture of Gerrett Parks, who for two months in 2011 and 2012 terrorized drivers by throwing heavy items from a freeway overpass onto cars, seriously injuring one man. License plate readers were used to capture Parks.
"This is one of the cases where literally, we as law enforcement, without having this type of data, were having officers sit on the bridge and write down license plate numbers trying to catch these subjects because we have no clue," Franklin said.
Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, a city prosecutor and outspoken advocate on privacy issues relating to law enforcement data, said his concern lies with the fact that the Legislature will be forced to make a move on the issue before the reclassification expires next session.
"When you have to do something under the gun often … you end up with bad law," Lesch said.
"I'm a little concerned that if we're only creating data privacy under the shadow of a deadline, it'll lead to some hasty decisionmaking on what were doing."