Local law enforcement share thoughts on potential license plate number retention time limit

State Supreme Court to take up issue in August


DANVILLE, Va. – License plate readers are a common tool used by law enforcement.

They can alert officers that a vehicle may be stolen.

Officers can also use the devices to scan license plates in an area to create a log of what cars are in that area and that data can be helpful in the event a crime is committed there.

"Say a suspect vehicle leaves an area. We can pull that and sometimes it can give us some investigative leads," Martinsville Police Chief Eddie Cassady said.

With no way to predict when a crime will happen, always having the data on file would be beneficial.

But in August, the Virginia Supreme Court is scheduled to begin hearing the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) appeal of the lawsuit it had dismissed last year in Fairfax County.

The suit ultimately sought to end the county's policy of keeping license plate numbers on file for a year, claiming it violated the state's data act, which limits when officers are allowed to access someone's personal information.

"The license plate readers, all they actually do is read numbers," Cassady explained.

Even so, the numbers give officers the ability to access personal information if it becomes necessary and because Virginia currently does not limit the amount of time license plate numbers can be kept, law enforcement agencies could theoretically keep the numbers on file indefinitely.

The Martinsville Police Department keeps license plate numbers on file for six years. The Danville Police Department keeps them on file for no more than six months in most cases.

Imposing a time limit on the data could hinder investigations, but wouldn't necessarily change investigations.

"Unless (the Virginia Supreme Court makes the time limit) less than 24 hours," said Danville Police Department Capt. Dennis Haley. "Because normally, one of the first things we do is access it to see if it's of benefit."

Several other states already have time limits in place.