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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Northern California sheriff sued for sharing license plate data with immigration authorities

Community activists in Northern California sued the Marin County sheriff on Thursday, claiming he illegally shared millions of local drivers’ license plates and location data with hundreds of federal and out-of-state agencies.

(CN) — Community activists in Northern California sued the Marin County sheriff on Thursday, claiming he illegally shared millions of local drivers’ license plates and location data with hundreds of federal and out-of-state agencies.

The activists argue in their complaint that since 2014, Sheriff Robert Doyle collected information through a vast network of automated license plate reader cameras peppered across the coastal county northwest of San Francisco Bay. The cameras “can automatically scan and record the time-stamped locations of thousands of drivers per day regardless of whether those drivers have violated any law,” according to the suit.

The plaintiffs, who are community members and immigration activists, say documents show that the information collected is shared with more than a dozen federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, along with over 400 law enforcement agencies outside California. The community activists are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes civil liberties in the digital sphere.

“It is very much a concern in immigrant communities and the wider community about privacy and security and making sure that the sheriff is complying with the law,” Saira Hussain, a staff attorney on the case for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Courthouse News. “This is a particularly pernicious practice within immigrant communities. We know that oftentimes, when ICE or Customs and Border Protection receive this information, they use it to detain and deport immigrants.”

Hussain cited a previous investigation by the ACLU that revealed ICE frequently used a massive database of information taken from automated license plate readers, with the aid of scores of local law enforcement agencies sharing data.

The complaint contends that Doyle’s sharing of this data violates two California laws. The first bill, enacted in 2015, “prohibits California agencies from sharing automated license plate reader data with out-of-state and federal agencies,” according to Hussain.

The second bill, the “sanctuary state” law known as the California Values Act, limits local law enforcement’s ability to assist with federal immigration enforcement. Both laws serve as the basis for the activists’ theory of the case.

“I think it’s a good theory,” said Bill Ong Hing, the director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense clinic and a professor at the University of San Francisco. “Under the Values Act, law enforcement agencies in California are not supposed to be sharing information on immigration status and assisting with immigration enforcement, with narrow exception. And this is not one of those narrow exceptions.”

Hing said the sheriff’s office making “information readily available to agencies like ICE is troubling,” warning that it “engenders a feeling of distrust” towards all law enforcement from the community, particularly immigrant communities.

“The whole idea behind so-called sanctuary jurisdictions or ordinances is that in order to do their work, law enforcement ought to have the trust and confidence of every part of the community, including the immigrant community,” Hing said. “If the immigrant community thinks that law enforcement is cooperating with ICE, then the immigrant community is not going to trust law enforcement when it comes to being the victim of a crime or a witness to a crime.”

Beyond the specific effects on immigrants, the activists say local law enforcement sharing license plate location data invasively tracks the day-to-day life of community members without their knowledge or consent.

“The information unveiled through this lawsuit shows that the freedoms that people think they possess in Marin County are a mirage: people cannot move about freely without being surveilled,” said community activist Lisa Bennett in a statement. “Our county sheriff, who has sworn to uphold the law, is in fact violating it by sharing peoples’ private information with outside agencies. This has especially alarming implications for immigrants and people of color: two communities that are traditionally the targets of excessive policing, surveillance and separation from loved ones and community through incarceration or deportation.”

According to a statement from the ACLU of Northern California announcing the lawsuit, the suit is “the first of its kind to challenge the sharing of private information collected by automated license plate reader mass surveillance.”

However, both Hussain and Hing said the local law enforcement practice of sharing such information is likely widespread.

“We know that the Marin County sheriff is not the only one who is in violation of these laws and we believe that the practice of sharing is quite widespread across California,” Hussain said. “We’re hoping that this lawsuit puts other jurisdictions on notice that they must stop sharing this information and they need to stop endangering the privacy and security of immigrant communities.”

“Law enforcement should pay attention to its responsibilities to the entire community. This is going to really scare people who are in the immigrant community,” Hing said. “I think it’s a good thing that this lawsuit was filed as a reminder to law enforcement that this is pretty scary for regular people.”

Representatives for Doyle, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, Customs and Border Protection and ICE did not respond to requests for comment.

Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Technology

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