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Screenshot of data collected by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department automatic license plate readers. Electronic Frontier Foundation
Scott Steepleton, Editor
4:48 pm PDT April 6, 2021

After an initial split vote, the Malibu Public Safety Commission on Wednesday is set to take another look at recommending adding additional automatic license plate readers for use in the city.

Placed on patrol units, high-speed, computer-controlled ALPRs take pictures of every license plate they pass. In the case of stationary units like the ones overseen by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills Estates, Rolling Hills and Palos Verdes Estates, they take pictures of every plate that passes by.

Either way, the system captures all sorts of data, including vehicle build and color, resident status and the location, date and time of the information capture and can immediately alert a deputy or the dispatch center to a “hot car,” including those reported stolen, suspected of being involved in criminal or terrorist activities and owned by a wanted person.

Hot or not, that a plate’s location and time of day are captured are factors that prompted the Electronic Frontier Foundation to call ALPR “mass surveillance technology (that) collects information on every driver, the overwhelming majority of whom are innocent.”

Malibu approved $32,000 for its first reader in 2010. Since then, it has been mounted on various sheriff’s units assigned to the city.

“The camera has proved effective for identifying stolen vehicles and suspects wanted for serious crimes,” according to a staff report prepared by Susan Due˜nas, public safety manager. “However, with just one camera, in one vehicle, the effectiveness is limited.”

Costs have dropped substantially since then, and a fixed camera can run just $2,500 per year (as opposed to $12,000 to $18,000 a decade ago) with installation costing $250.

The fixed camera, Dueñas says, may be less practical because a deputy is not there to immediately act on a “hot” hit.

When it meets via Zoom at 5 p.m. Wednesday, the commission will be asked to make recommendations on purchasing new cameras and, if the stationary version, deciding where to place them.

The City Council would have the final say.

In a report on ALPRs, Capt. Dan Beringer of the Lomita Sheriff's Station, which provides service to the four peninsula cities, said stationary models by Vigilant that first went operational in August 2016 have scanned millions of plates, resulting in the return of 12 stolen vehicles and the arrest of 15 occupants. In addition, there have been three arrests for warrants, a vehicle associated with a robbery from another agency stopped and one missing person located.

“Our investigators have successfully utilized the database to solve three burglaries, two unrelated stolen vehicle investigations, and multiple arrests were made related to a large shoplifting ring,” Beringer writes.

A search of ALPR “successes” in Malibu shows just one specific case: In 2012, a van reported stolen in Inglewood passed in front of a deputy with ALPR on Malibu Canyon Road. As deputies tried to stop the driver, the man drove off a cliff, landing 150 feet below.

His wife jumped out at the last minute and was captured by deputies.

The driver, identified as Michael Kheop, 44, of Malibu, ran off but was later captured.

When the idea to purchase additional cameras was put before the Public Safety Commission back in December, the Malibu sheriff’s liaison Lt. James Braden said “plate readers were not always useful in that criminals often switched plates,” according to meeting minutes.

The more critical issue, Braden said four months ago, was addressing homelessness — and if cost was an issue, he’d rather ALPR money go toward that issue.

Braden and commission Vice Chair Doug Stewart agreed that video cameras might get pushback from the public.

The minutes also show Commissioner Keegan Gibbs giving support for cameras if they had a specific purpose “but not for constant surveillance,” noting they “could be perceived as an invasion of privacy.”

While Gibbs talked against “unnecessary surveillance,” he expressed support for a camera on a sheriff’s vehicle, including decoy cars.

Commissioner Dale Skophammer, saying the city should use any tool available to solve crimes, suggested installing fixed ALPRs at Trancas Canyon Road, Malibu Canyon Road and Big Rock Drive.

Commission Chair Chris Frost pushed back on concerns that the cameras amounted to “Big Brother” watching over the city.

When it came time to vote at that December meeting, commission member Fred Roberts had left.

The motion failed 2-2, with Gibbs and Stewart saying no.

Unlike the report from the lieutenant in Lomita, there’s no Malibu-specific details that show capturing millions of pieces of license plate and car data would stop a whole lot of crime.

“Yes,” Dueñas told Surfside News, “the commission originally rejected the idea for that very reason. But after learning a bit more, they wanted to give it a second look.”

“It’s definitely a tool that needs to be given very careful thought,” she said.

In February 2020, State Auditor Elaine Howle released a report critical of how the four agencies her office looked at, including the Los Angeles Police Department, handled ALPR data.

“In general, we determined that the law enforcement agencies we reviewed must better protect individuals’ privacy through ensuring that their policies reflect state law,” Howle said in her summary statement. “In addition, we found that these agencies must improve their ALPR data security, make more informed decisions about sharing their ALPR data, and expand their oversight of ALPR users.”

None of the four agencies, Howle said, “had audited searches of the ALPR images by their staff and thus had no assurance that the searches were appropriate.”

The previous year, after suing the LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for access to ALPR data, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California announced an agreement where the agencies agreed to turn over “license plate data they indiscriminately collected on millions of law-abiding drivers in Southern California.”

The agreement followed a precedent-setting California Supreme Court decision in 2017 that held that the data “are not investigative records under the California Public Records Act that law enforcement can keep secret.”

One week’s worth of data, said EFF and ACLU at the time, amounted to nearly 3 million data points.

Malibu City Council member Paul Grisanti told Surfside News that, as a member of Arson Watch, a volunteer program of the sheriff’s Malibu-Lost Hills Station, “I have patrolled the hills and made notes including license plates of vehicles parked in suspicious locations.”

“I look forward to hearing the public input and any explanations about the differences between collecting license plates in suspicious situations versus checking all plates that an equipped patrol vehicle happens to drive by before I will be able to make a decision and vote on this,” said Grisanti.

Another council member, Bruce Silverstein, said he supports additional ALPRs if the commission finds them “beneficial to protecting the health, safety and welfare of Malibu residents.”

“Automatic license plate readers do not perform any data collection function that could not be performed by a law enforcement officer who is out on patrol,” said Silverstein. They simply permit the lawful collection of data “to be performed more efficiently, robustly and economically.”

Silverstein sees no civil liberty issues, given long-standing U.S. Supreme Court authority “that provides the government with substantial latitude to monitor activity that occurs in public, where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

It’s a different story, he said, if there is an invasion of privacy.

“As best I can tell, however, nobody has a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the location of their licensed vehicles when they are being operated on public roadways.”