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North County police departments are being accused of illegally sharing license plate data wit
North County police departments are being accused of illegally sharing license plate data with nationwide agencies. Photo by Dallas Paparazzo
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North County police under fire for sharing license plate data

Update: This story has been update to include comments from the Carlsbad Police Department.

REGION — Three North County police departments have been allegedly violating state law by sharing information from license plate readers with out-of-state police forces, according to an investigation by inewsource.

The publication reported on Jan. 6 the police departments in the cities of Carlsbad, Escondido and Oceanside have been sharing data with law enforcement agencies nationwide, although state law only allows for agencies in California to share with each other.

Police in La Mesa and Coronado also were found to allegedly have violated state laws, according to inewsource.

“Our policies are a living document. We amend them to comply with the law, remain in best practices, be transparent and be accountable to the community of Carlsbad,” said CPD Public Information Office Jodee Reyes said. “Carlsbad’s current practice is to only share data with agencies inside the State of California. We refer readers to SB34 for a greater understanding of the legal requirements for agencies regarding ALPR data sharing.”

In 2017, Carlsbad approved license plate readers by a 4-1 vote, with former Councilwoman Cori Schumacher voting no, but with pushback from the public on potential impacts and privacy concerns. Since then, the city has spent more than $1.3 million on license plate readers.

Also, the council approved raises with the Carlsbad Police Management Association, which consists of lieutenants and captains within the municipal police department. The memorandum of understanding calls for a 4% raise this year, 3.3% in 2023 and 3.2% in 2024. The city is also negotiating a new contract with the Carlsbad Police Officers’ Association.

After being questioned by inewsource, the Carlsbad Police Department changed its policy, as did Coronado, to share only with other in-state agencies. Oceanside police told inewsource it stopped sharing, but did not provide proof, according to reporter Cody Dulaney.

In Escondido and La Mesa, the police department refused to answer questions from inewsource about sharing data and claimed they did nothing wrong.

All signed an agreement with Vigilant Solutions to house data, and the agreement included a memorandum of understanding, which CPD said prevents it from sharing data with federal agencies according to a 2018 story in the Coast News.

Also, the auditor found in 2020 police agencies are keeping data longer than necessary and sharing it with others who don’t need or have a right to access it, inewsource found.

Senate Bills 34 and 54 prevent state agencies from sharing data with ICE and Customs Border Patrol and coordinating with federal immigration officials.

Carlsbad approved 51 license plate readers in 2017 and added 35 in 2018. In the first half of 2018, the city recorded more than 48 million license plates with 267 reports of stolen or wanted vehicles. By utilizing license-plate readers, Carlsbad police were able to recover 65 stolen vehicles and 10 stolen license plates.

In addition, 63 arrests were made using license-plate reading technology during the same time period, including three people linked in separate cases of attempted murder in Carlsbad, San Diego County and Arizona. Most of the arrests were related to auto theft and have led to the recovery of other stolen property including an AR-15 rifle. Forty-four of the arrestees also had a criminal history or were on parole or probation.

In 2018, Schumacher said the data and those deceitful tactics could be used by other agencies to gain access to Carlsbad’s data. She cited an example from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department tracking someone suspected of welfare fraud, although she said there was no proof.

“This has prompted cities to pass more restrictive ordinances,” Schumacher said in 2018. “This has been an eye-opening foray into privacy issues. No matter how stringently audited or what our MOU (memorandum of understanding) looks like, our data is being used not according to our MOU.”

Escondido’s hit rate, though, is just 0.9% having scanned more than eight million license plates and securing 82,000 results.

The Carlsbad Police Department has yet to respond with a comment.