An embattled license plate reader bill that would green-light a six-month pilot of the law enforcement technology in Nashville is nearing its final vote.
The bill will need 21 votes on Tuesday night to clear this last hurdle — something it narrowly achieved on its second reading earlier this month, passing 22-11 with two abstentions.
Passage of the bill would allow Nashville police to pilot automatic license plate readers, which capture images of every license plate and vehicle that pass. Under the bill, law enforcement could then compare plate numbers against those of stolen vehicles, vehicles flagged for potential connections with crime, or for traffic or parking offenses.
As the vote nears, opponents have heightened their criticism, highlighting what they say are problematic contradictions and deficiencies in the bill’s language that cloud the efficacy of restrictions on how city departments could use and share license plate reader data.
Several Metro Council members and Nashville’s civilian police oversight board say the risks to individual rights and safety under the bill as currently proposed are too great, and the bill’s text can no longer be amended.
Its proponents say license plate readers, often known as LPRs, are a powerful policing tool that could help police solve crimes and potentially locate missing people. Council member Courtney Johnston, who authored the bill, said earlier this month the Council has “gotten as close as we’re going to get without rendering this tool useless.”
At-large Council member Bob Mendes, an attorney and vocal opponent of the bill and LPRs in general, published an annotated copy of the bill’s text Sunday identifying what he said are internal weaknesses and inconsistencies.
Reached for comment Monday, Johnston stated members of the Metro legal team are reviewing Mendes’ analysis of the bill. A response had yet to be issued as of 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Council member Zach Young stated on Twitter Sunday he is “in full support of implementing LPR technology in Nashville,” but will not vote in favor of Johnston’s bill Tuesday based partly on issues presented in Mendes’ analysis.
Young plans to support Rosenberg’s bill, which “provides a much cleaner starting point to implement LPR technology in our county,” he said.
On Tuesday morning, Young announced he was back in the undecided column on the issue.
“This is a result of conversations with attorneys & hearing constituent feedback,” Young posted on Twitter.
Mayor’s office, Nashville police, Community Oversight Board weigh in
Nashville Mayor John Cooper expressed support for a “pilot exploration” of LPR technology in a statement to The Tennessean Monday.
“The Council has deliberated the role of LPRs for more than a year and has struggled to reach consensus on any legislation,” Cooper spokesperson Andrea Fanta said. “While the administration could work with various versions of previous ordinances, (Johnston’s bill) appears to enjoy majority support, and it meets the Mayor’s objectives for effective deployment and appropriate safeguards.”
The Cooper administration checked with Nashville Police Chief John Drake throughout the last year to assess the practicality of the proposed ordinances. Drake’s team determined this bill allows for “reasonable implementation,” according to Fanta.
Cooper’s office did not comment on Mendes’ analysis.
Drake and Nashville Department of Transportation Director Diana Alarcon wrote a letter to council members Monday urging the bill’s passage.
“LPR information will NOT be shared with ICE for any type of immigration enforcement,” the letter states. “License plate reader technology will NOT be used to identify speeders or those who commit minor traffic infractions. It will, however, be of significant assistance to our fatal and critical crash investigators as they work to identify and locate vehicles used in hit and run offenses.”
Several council members, including Johnston, have previously stated U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does have the ability to access LPR data by subpoena. The bill also states LPRs could be used to detect traffic and parking offenses — terms that the current text does not define.
“The police department is not advocating for a camera-based traffic moving violation enforcement program,” Metro police spokesperson Don Aaron wrote in an email Monday.
Aaron said Nashville’s LPR information “would not be shared with ICE for immigration enforcement,” but noted the department would honor a subpoena issued by a U.S. District Court judge or a federal grand jury subpoena issued by the U.S. Attorney.
The Community Oversight Board, Nashville’s independent police oversight entity, issued a letter to the Metro Council Monday noting the bill limits COB’s audit abilities to information regarding data storage, access and other queries. Conversely, the bill gives public defenders and the district attorney the ability to “examine and audit any LPR, any file used to store LPR data and any records pertaining to the use of LPRs.”
The COB voted to oppose LPR use in Nashville in December.
“Should Council wish to proceed with this legislation, it is the COB’s strong view that it should have equal authority to audit LPRs as the district attorney and public defender,” the board stated.
Martesha Johnson, chief public defender at the Nashville Defender’s Office, wrote a letter to the Council Tuesday urging members to vote against the bill.
“The ambiguous language present throughout (the bill) leaves the door open for discriminatory targeting, disparities in policy application and difficulties imposing sanctions,” Johnson wrote.
LPR technology is already being used by multiple police departments surrounding Nashville, including Mt. Juliet, Belle Meade, Brentwood, Franklin, Gallatin and Hendersonville.
The readers alert officers if a plate could be a potential match for one in National Crime Information Center database “hotlists,” populated by staff at law enforcement agencies nationwide. The readers can’t distinguish license plates by state and require verification from an officer.
What’s in the bill?
The bill would allow Nashville to launch a six-month LPR pilot program that would need council approval to continue after that period.
Johnston’s bill would allow LPR use for:
- investigating and prosecuting felony offenses and other criminal offenses associated with violent crimes (potentially including some misdemeanors).
- investigating and prosecuting reckless driving.
- investigating and prosecuting stolen vehicles and license plates.
- detecting traffic and parking offenses.
- operating smart parking and curb management programs.
- assisting in missing persons cases.
The bill bars the use of LPRs for:
- general surveillance of an individual.
- identifying a vehicle for repossession.
- determining whether a license plate is expired.
- determining whether a motorist has a valid driver’s license.
- determining whether a motorist is insured.
In his analysis, Mendes said individuals may be generally surveilled in some ongoing investigation situations under the bill’s current language, and while the ordinance forbids facial recognition technology, it does allow a vehicle to be photographed and does not specifically bar storage of facial images.
The bill allows law enforcement agencies, parking enforcement patrol, NDOT and its contractors to examine data collected by LPRs if they have “reasonable suspicion” of a felony, traffic or parking offense.
Data would be stored for 10 days unless part of an investigation or “pending or anticipated litigation.” Access would be logged and limited to 10 specially trained employees within the Metro Nashville Police Department, though it’s unclear if these employees would also take responsibility for detecting civil traffic and parking violations and operating smart parking and curb management programs.
The bill requires regular audits and restricts conditions under which LPR data can be shared outside MNPD, issues that Mendes also contended are unclear or problematic.
Fixed LPRs would be required to be installed “equitably” in Davidson County’s four quadrants to “help prevent misuse of LPR technology to track and unfairly target vulnerable communities.”
Amendments added during the council’s Jan. 18 meeting would require the city to install signs near the cameras notifying motorists of their presence, and block any grants from private entities for LPR-related use during the pilot period (during which the city could lease LPRs from a private company). If the bill ultimately passes, and if Metro Council ultimately decides to allow the LPR program to continue after the pilot period, donations would be allowed from non-government organizations, but only with council approval.
Reach reporter Cassandra Stephenson at [email protected] or at (731) 694-7261. Follow Cassandra on Twitter at @CStephenson731.