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Dozens of law enforcement agencies nationwide — including some Valley agencies — are sharing license plate information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as part of an operation targeting undocumented immigrants, according to documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The documents, obtained by the ACLU of Northern California through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, spark questions about whether the cooperation of the agencies with ICE violates state laws.
The Tulare Police Department, Merced Police Department, Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, Manteca Police Department and the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office are among the 80 agencies nationwide who have agreed to share information with ICE, the documents show.
But at least one of the law enforcement agencies in the Central Valley said it’s not sharing such data with ICE.
Vasudha Talla, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get documents from ICE in March 2018. But after the federal immigration agency failed to respond, the organization filed a lawsuit in May 2018.
Talla said the ACLU became concerned about ICE’s access to license plate information, and it believed it was important to litigate to get the records in a timely fashion.
The records unveiled the large number of ICE agents that have access to such data, the list of law enforcement agencies sharing information with ICE and internal emails of an officer in Orange County informally sharing information with federal immigration agents, she said.
“California has laws prohibiting sharing of these types of data,” she said. “It is an invasion of privacy of all Central Valley residents.”
ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke, in a lengthy statement, confirmed the agency in December 2017 started a contract to obtain access to the commercial license plate reader database. He said the agency uses data from license plate readers as “one tool in support of its investigations,” like most law enforcement agencies.
In March 2015, ICE developed a privacy impact assessment for the use of the technology, in order ensure the requirements with privacy and civil liberties were met. The assessment was updated in December 2017, prior to the agency accessing the database.
“ICE does not use the (license plate reader) data service to locate or track individuals who have no connection to ICE investigatory or enforcement activities,” he said.
The data that is collected and shared provides “intimate details” about an individual, Talla said.
In addition to ICE being able to obtain the information from local law enforcement agencies, federal immigration agents also have access to a massive license plate reader information database through a private contract, according to the ACLU.
More than 9,000 ICE agents have access to a vast automated license plate reader database run by a company called Vigilant Solutions.
ICE has access to more than 5 billion scans of license plate locations through Vigilant’s database.
ICE’s contract to have access to the data began Dec. 21, 2017, and runs through Sept. 30, 2020 for an estimated cost of nearly $6.1 million, records show.
License plate reader information cameras that capture information can be throughout communities, mounted on road signs, on patrol vehicles, parking lots and bridges. Over time, aggregated data can establish patterns of a person’s life.
Talla said this type of surveillance raises privacy concerns and “there’s a huge amount” of civil liberty-related issues with the practice.
The surveillance can reveal “down to the minute where you are at any given time,” Talla said. “We think this is all happening under the radar,” she said.
City denies ACLU claims
Sgt. Joe Ahuna, with the Manteca Police Department, said his agency is not sharing license plate data with ICE.
After receiving inquiries from media, Ahuna said, he spoke with Vigilant and discovered that ICE, by default, was listed as an agency the Manteca Police Department would share information with on the system.
However, he said the city doesn’t have license plate reader equipment in the community, and therefore, it’s not collecting nor sharing such information with ICE.
“Nothing has been submitted from us to be shared with anybody,” he said. “Because we are not collecting or transmitting any data, I don’t think anybody was paying attention from the list.”
Ahuna said on Wednesday ICE was removed from the list after the issue was brought to the department’s attention.
“This is obviously a very concerning issue for everybody in the state,” he said.
Matt Machado, with the Tulare Police Department, said his department would have to read the records and contact Vigilant in order to answer questions.
Merced City Manager Steve Carrigan, in a statement to The Bee, said officials were reviewing information they received in a letter from the ACLU on Wednesday.
“Our review of the information will be done following our current policies and procedures,” he said. “We look forward to meeting with ACLU representatives to discuss this matter further once we have completed our review.”
Tony Cipolla, spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, said the sheriff’s office has never shared license plate reader information with ICE. The sheriff’s office, he said, currently has one license plate reader in use for the purpose of stopping drug smuggling and human trafficking in the county.
“We are currently suspending the use of that system until further consultation with County Counsel regarding the legality of data collected and shared from license plate readers,” he said in a statement to The Bee.
Talla said the ACLU is calling for an end to the surveillance, and for an investigation into compliance of Senate Bill 34, which deals with automated license plate recognition systems, and Senate Bill 54, the state’s Sanctuary Law.
The ACLU believes the practice violates both laws, but even more specifically, SB 34, Talla said. “We are calling for the local agencies in California... to stop sharing the data with ICE,” she said.
Officials in Stanislaus didn’t return calls seeking comment Wednesday.