OGDEN — Utah's license plate reader law won't change this year, but both law enforcement officials and civil rights activists say it could use some tweaking in their respective favors.

While other states are proposing bills to curtail how long data from automatic license plate readers can be stored in response to rising police use of the technology, Utah’s law will likely remain firmly intact during the 2015 general legislative session. 

“I don’t anticipate any changes this year,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who in 2013 sponsored legislation that limited law enforcement's ability to keep data collected by ALPRs to only nine months and private companies access to the data for seven days. Minor updates to the bill were also included in 2014.

Weiler said the bill was initially aimed at stopping the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration from setting up ALPRs not attached to police cars, but mounted along Interstate 15. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the DEA has plate reader operations set up in at least eight states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and New Jersey.

Weiler said the DEA eventually withdrew its Utah request, but in researching the issue, it was found many local Utah agencies also use the technology. According to the information gathered by Utah’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, Top of Utah law enforcement agencies in Ogden, North Ogden, South Ogden, Riverdale, Roy, Weber County, Layton, Clearfield, Centerville, Bountiful and Davis County all use a state-controlled database that contains information collected by ALPR systems.

The ALPR systems can not only identify vehicles almost instantly and compare them against “hot lists” of cars that have been stolen or involved in crimes, they can also check to see if cars are registered and insured.

Weiler said his intent with the bill was to protect individual privacy without impeding law enforcement’s ability to do its job.

Aside from the data retention windows, Utah’s ALPR law also makes it so captured plate data is a protected record under the Government Records Access and Management Act, requires that captured plate data can only be disclosed with a warrant, prohibits selling captured plate data for any purpose and several other stipulations on how government entities can use plate data.

“We wanted to eliminate some of the Big Brother aspects, but also didn’t want to impair law enforcement,” he said.

Weiler said the Utah current law straddles that line effectively, so right now, there’s no need to change it.

Utah scored high marks for privacy protection in a 2014 ACLU blog post after Weiler’s bill passed.

The post includes an interactive web map that shows the privacy laws in each state on four issues: law enforcement access to electronic communications content, location tracking, automatic license plate readers and domestic surveillance drones.

“The clear winner for most privacy-protective state is Utah,” the post says. “Which not only provides privacy protections against government abuse of location tracking, electronic communications content, automatic license plate readers, and drones, but also for electronic data.”

But some in the law enforcement community say the law, especially the data retention window, does present some challenges.

"Our job is made a little more difficult by the restrictions, but we don’t make the laws, we enforce them to the best of our ability," said John Harvey, deputy director of Support Services with the Ogden Police Department.

"License plate readers do what an effective patrol officer does, except that it does it with speed and higher volume," Harvey said. "Officers have run tags for decades and taken that information further by manually searching numerous databases. LPR simplifies that process and when fully extended, enables the officer to be much more effective at keeping the streets safe."

Ogden has one ALPR-fitted vehicle, which costs about $50,000 and features four cameras mounted on top of the police car, with a special computer inside.

According to documents Ogden City submitted to the ACLU in response to the agency’s government records request on ALPR data, Ogden police made 10 arrests and recovered five stolen vehicles between Aug. 8 and Oct. 22, 2012 as a result of using ALPR technology.

And while the ACLU praised Utah’s privacy, it also thinks the law can be improved, but in the opposite direction law enforcement officials would like to see.

“Our bill does a pretty good job, but there could be some improvements,” said Marina Lowe, legislative and policy council for the ACLU of Utah. “The (nine-month) retention schedule is still much too long. We’d much rather see something similar to the time frames other states are now considering. Something in the range of 30 to 60 days.”

While Utah has been somewhat ahead of the game regarding privacy laws and ALPR technology, other states are now exceeding the state’s restrictions and coming closer to what Lowe considers ideal.

In Minnesota, two bills have been filed: one that would require police to destroy data after 90 days; and one that would prohibit storage of data unless the license plate is for a vehicle that has been stolen, or if the driver has a warrant for his arrest or a suspended or revoked driver’s license.

At a hearing earlier this month for the bills, Maplewood, Minnesota, police chief Paul Schnell said he was opposed to the bills because the technology has been used to track down stolen cars and once helped solve a murder.

While residents sometimes have concerns, he said people are “extremely supportive” when officers “explained what the technology is capable of,” according to KSTP in St. Paul.

Bills have also been filed in Missouri, which would limit data storage to 30 days, and Virginia, where two bills have been filed, one that would set a seven-day limit and another that would set a 24-hour limit.

“I have the highest trust and respect for Virginia’s law enforcement professionals who ensure our safety, but the overwhelming sentiment of our citizens is that we restrict the collection, dissemination, and retention of data that many feel violates our centuries-old principles of personal privacy,” said Delegate Richard Anderson, who sponsored the seven-day bill, in a statement.

State Sen. Chapman “Chap” Petersen, who also sponsored the bill, said the legislation “strikes a balance between personal liberty and public safety in Virginia.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Mitch Shaw at 801-625-4233 or mishaw@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23.

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