Lee’s Summit sued over records request on license-plate readers

rpulley@lsjournal.comFebruary 28, 2014 

A Lee’s Summit resident is suing the city to get information about its use of license plate readers.

Bob Gough, a resident who’s known for his activism on tax issues, now is asking a Jackson County Circuit Court judge to rule that information collected on innocent people caught up in the surveillance of the cameras are “public records.”

He contends their names and other information in the city’s data should be available for inspection. He’s unsuccessfully asked the police department and city clerk for the information.

“I’m trying to loosen their lips,” Gough said. “I’m not real sure what they’re doing.”

Gough is representing himself in the lawsuit he filed Feb. 14.

It drags Lee’s Summit into a nationwide debate over privacy and uses of computer technology.

The Lee’s Summit Police Department participates in a nationwide database program that screens license plate numbers captured by cameras, utilizing computers to automatically compare them with reports on stolen vehicles, or drivers who have active warrants and other investigations.

Vigilant Solutions is the manufacturer and seller of the plate-reader system used by Lee’s Summit police, selling the product through a reseller in Missouri known as Turn-Key Mobile, Inc., which provides it locally to public safety departments including Lee’s Summit, said Sgt. Chris Depue, a department spokesman.

Gough said he has no problem with the police department using the high-speed surveillance cameras to locate stolen cars or identify criminals on the street.

“It’s just police work using high technology,” he said.

Gough says he’s bothered by the possibility of the patrol car driving by a church or a gun store and taking pictures of who is there.

“I don’t think that’s appropriate for the kind of society I want to live in,” Gough said.

The department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency use the nationwide database contributed to by Vigilant Solutions as part of its net of information kept, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and other reports.

Sub-units of Vigilant Solutions and similar companies also are using the technology to privately capture the same information and share it with marketers.

For example, the companies swing through shopping malls to report to retailers where shoppers have come from. It can also compare data from other sweeps to determine if what other shopping areas those same customers frequented.

There doesn’t seem to be anything which would prevent federal agencies from getting Lee’s Summit data while its available and copying it themselves, Gough said.

The Lee’s Summit City Council, passing an ordinance setting policy for how the system can be used, limited storing data for 30 days.

Gough’s suit says he doesn’t want records of active criminal investigations. His suit asks for “all license plate data including time, vehicle information, date and location and saved by police surveillance cameras on innocent members of the general public going about their daily activities on public and private streets and parking lots.” He also asked for passwords and user information to facilitate gathering the information.

“Hopefully the court will rule it’s a public record,” Gough said.

The Wall Street Journal sued in California over a similar request and was successful in getting names of people who had data collected by license plate readers. Other police departments in the U.S. have given up the data, redacted in some cases, under those state’s public records laws.

City Clerk Denise Chisum, as the city’s designated custodian of records, said Gough several times had made the same request of the city and police, but been denied because of an exception to the Sunshine Law. The city is aware of the suit but hasn’t been served at this time, she said.

Part of the Sunshine Law allows the city to close certain records related to the license plate readers, according to a letter from Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster which the city cited in it’s response to his requests.

Under Missouri statutes section 610.100.3. states “any portion of a record ... which would disclose techniques, procedures or guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions ... shall be closed.”

“We’re giving him the same response (each time),” Chisum said. “He doesn’t like the response.”

Other sections of the law, however, lend themselves to a different outlook.

The names gathered by the devices can be considered as investigatory reports, so unless the name is part of a specific open investigation, it’s a public record. Investigatory reports are by law open records once a particular investigation is complete.

When parts of reports fall under contradictory demands of the law, Missouri’s Sunshine Law allows for closed information to be redacted.

Investigatory reports are by law open records once a particular investigation is complete.

“I’m aware of this lawsuit and I’m interested in it,” said Jean Maneke, a lawyer who is an expert on Missouri’s Sunshine Law. “ I think the city is wrong in its interpretation of this law.”

Judge Charles McKenzie has set a July date for a case-management hearing.

 

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