Automated License Plate Readers

Jill Shelley
Principal Research Analyst

Andrew Finzen
Research Analyst

Aaron Klaassen
Principal Fiscal Analyst

How Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) Work

An ALPR system includes a camera system that photographs what it perceives to be a license plate on a vehicle and a computer system that interprets the image as a license plate number using optical character recognition. Time, date, and location are associated with the image.

The camera may be mounted in a permanent location, such as on a bridge or tollway entrance gantry, or on a vehicle. Plate data are sent to a central location to be compared with data such as the license plate numbers of stolen vehicles or vehicles associated with specific crimes.

Kansas Law Enforcement Uses of ALPRs

According to testimony provided to the Senate Committee on Transportation in 2021 on SB 305 and to the House Committee on Transportation in 2021, ALPR technology has been used by law enforcement agencies for almost two decades. Private industries such as insurers and vehicle repossession companies also use ALPR data collected by systems available from various vendors.

In testimony to the transportation committees and the Joint Committee on Kansas Security, Wichita Police Department (WPD) and Kansas Highway Patrol (KHP) officers stated ALPR technology has been used as a force multiplier to assist in the recovery of stolen vehicles, arrest of suspected felons, prosecutions, and recovery of kidnapping and sex trafficking victims; to confirm the presence of motorcycle gangs in the Wichita area; to reduce time searching for vehicles; and to confirm an alibi in a murder case.

Current Kansas Law Enforcement ALPR Data Storage and Sharing

In testimony to the 2021 Joint Committee on Kansas Security, a KHP officer described how the KHP stores and shares ALPR data. Data are transmitted to Criminal Justice Information System-level secure servers at Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) offices, where the data are held for six months and then deleted with no retrievability. (The HIDTA Program, created by Congress in 1988 and housed in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, coordinates and assists federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies to reduce drug trafficking and drug production in the United States.)

The system described by the KHP officer requires an authorized, vetted user to enter a username and password to access the system, with access level based on the user’s role within the agency. A valid law enforcement reason for accessing the data must be provided. The KHP officer stated agency policy and a memorandum of understanding regulate the use and dissemination of the data. The WPD officer described to the transportation committees the agency’s written policies, how data is kept with the Houston HIDTA, and audits to determine whether access was for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.

Kansas 2021 SB 305

No current Kansas state statute addresses ALPR data or policies specifically.

SB 305, as introduced in 2021, would authorize law enforcement agencies to collect captured license plate data, store the data, and access it only for a legitimate law enforcement purpose. It would prohibit ALPR data from being sold, shared, disclosed, or otherwise distributed for a commercial purpose; this would not prohibit the use of ALPR systems by an individual or private legal entity for lawful purposes.

The bill would require each law enforcement agency that uses an ALPR system to adopt and maintain a detailed, written policy regarding its use and operation; the bill would require the policy to include a specified data retention period, defined requirements for access by agency employees, training for employees, the designation of an ALPR system administrator as the point of contact for the law enforcement agency, and an audit process to ensure information obtained from the system is used only for legitimate law enforcement purposes.

Under the bill, law enforcement ALPR data would not be subject to the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act.

ALPR Laws in Other States

At least 12 states have addressed ALPR data collection, use, and privacy in their laws: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Utah, and Vermont.

The aspects of ALPR law those state laws address include limits on what data can be lawfully collected, approved uses of the data, data privacy, data retention and destruction, access procedures for law enforcement agencies, and reporting on usage of ALPR data.

Concerns About ALPR Data

Concerns raised about ALPRs have included concerns related to those on privacy protections and the potential for biased policing. Biased policing could show itself in monitoring locations used by people associated by religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs to a greater extent than monitoring based on manually entering license plate numbers into a system, according to testimony in opposition to SB 305 as introduced provided by a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kansas. The ACLU of Kansas also raised issues of transparency that would prevent biased policing from being visible to the public. Concerns noted in other publications have been raised about collection of data not directly related to a current criminal investigation, data retention, and the approved uses of data.