Feds Use Local Police to Scan License Plates at Gun Shows

Photo: Mindy Schauer/The Orange County Register/Zuma Press
Photo: Mindy Schauer/The Orange County Register/Zuma Press

The Wall Street Journal reports that, as far back as 2010, agents for the federal government had cooperation from police officers in southern California to use their license plate readers to scan the license plates of vehicles at gun shows.

According to emails uncovered by the WSJ, the information was gathered by officers and provided to agents with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. The feds would then use that information to cross-check vehicles crossing the border into Mexico, for the purpose of trying to uncover illegal gun smuggling.

There is no evidence the surveillance led to any arrest, according to the report. But it did however raise the question of whether the program’s data collection, recording and storage of law-abiding gun owner’s activities is a violation of the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act.

According to the WSJ report, Jay Stanley, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the gun-show surveillance “highlights the problem with mass collection of data.” He said law enforcement can take two separate, entirely legal, activities – like buying guns and crossing the border – “and because those two activities in concert fit somebody’s idea of a crime, a person becomes inherently suspicious.”

The Drug Enforcement Agency considered a similar tactic in 2010 as well, but abandoned it without implementation. That did not stop IC’s Homeland Security Investigators from going forward with its surveillance program. While the agency has no written policy on its use of license-plate readers, it admitted it could engage in similar surveillance in the future.

Information obtained by the WSJ through a Freedom of Information Act Request revealed that ICE was targeting the Crossroads of the West Gun Show in Del Mar, California, in 2010, as well as other gun shows in nearby Ontario and Costa Mesa.

The WSJ confirmed with police officials familiar with the program that ICE got local police officers to drive around the parking lot at the gun show and use their license-plate readers to collect all of the cars’ information. A spokeswoman for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment to the WSJ on whether the department took part in the activity.

For those unfamiliar with license plate readers, readers are mounted on police cars or objects like road signs and bridges. They use small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute. The information captured by the readers – including the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of every scan – is collected and sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems. A single camera can capture the data at high speeds, in thick traffic, and in other situations that the human eye cannot.

As a result, the government is amassing enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information. And this information is often retained for years, or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights.

Currently, there are little regulations in place regarding the collection, use, and storage of such information.

For example, in the town of Grapevine, Texas, with a population of 47,000, official records indicate there are about 2 million plate reads on file as of 2012.

We all recognize the need to stop illegal gun trafficking, but at what cost?

Should the government be allowed to record and store license plate information for everyone in attendance at gun shows on the remote possibility that it might lead to an illegal activity?

Let us know what you think.

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