The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office may have been sharing license plate data it collects from vehicles with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of California, which could be violating California’s sanctuary state law.
A program called Vigilant allows authorities to collect license plate data using scanners affixed to the top of a law enforcement vehicle.
“The whole program is a pretty appalling invasion of privacy, potentially, in that it’s a massive surveillance program,” said Mike Latner, a Cal Poly Associate Professor of Political Science. “It’s something we might expect from a more authoritarian state: Russia or China comes to mind.”
The potential invasion of privacy is one of the reasons the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Vigilant to find out who receives information collected through the program.
“The ACLU has long been concerned about license plate technology and the surveillance aspect of it because of the impact on everyone but especially communities of color, people in poor neighborhoods,” said ACLU Attorney Vasudha Talla. “ICE uses this information, we found through the records, to find and deport immigrants.”
In a list of 80 U.S. law enforcement agencies kept by Vigilant, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office is identified as an agency sharing license plate data with ICE.
Talla and Latner argue that if local law enforcement agencies in California are sharing the license plate information with ICE for the purpose of immigration patrol, it may violate the state’s sanctuary status which limits how much information local authorities can share with federal authorities in regards to immigration enforcement.
“The sanctuary law is designed to protect undocumented immigrants and it’s essentially saying cities are not sharing info with federal authorities,” Latner said. “We often expect local government to protect us from federal incursions but in this case, it’s the local government that’s cooperating.”
But the SLO County Sheriff’s Office denies it ever shared license plate data with ICE and said the system doesn’t even collect immigration data or information about the driver’s identity.
“The sheriff’s office has one license plate reader in use at this time with the primary purpose of stopping drug smuggling and human trafficking in our county,” said Tony Cipolla, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office public information officer.
Still, Cipolla added that as a result of the ACLU report, the department is suspending use of the Vigilant system pending further consultation with the county attorney.
ACLU is calling for an audit of the departments named in the report.