Lawsuit Accuses Marin Sheriff of Illegally Sharing Surveillance Data

It seems Big Brother arrived in Marin in 2014, the year the County’s top cop began sharing surveillance information on residents with hundreds of government agencies—even when no law had been violated. 

Three community activists filed a lawsuit earlier this month in Marin County Superior Court alleging Marin County Sheriff Robert Doyle illegally provided the license plate and vehicle location information of motorists to out-of-state and federal agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Lisa Bennett, Cesar S. Lagleva and Tara Evans are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The three long-time Marin residents brought the lawsuit against Doyle and the County of Marin to stop the Sheriff’s Office from sharing data with agencies outside of California.

Since 2010, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office has gathered surveillance information through Automated License Plate Reader cameras. Glance up at light posts, overpasses or police cars in Marin County and it’s not difficult to spot a mounted camera. Don’t forget to smile, because the ALPR cameras automatically scan and record the photograph of any visible drivers and timestamps the vehicle location.

In other words, a driver’s photo and specific locations they’ve visited are shared with ICE, drug task forces and law enforcement departments all over the country, through software and a cloud-based database. “Government agents use this location information to track people’s movements, habits, and associations over time, including where a person lives, worships, and receives medical care,” according to the lawsuit.

Feel violated yet? Consider the effect on an undocumented immigrant living in Marin, a law-abiding person with a job, home and family. It’s likely only a matter of time until their private information is transferred to federal immigration authorities, and the person may be tracked, detained and deported.

The lawsuit aims to shut down Doyle’s practice of sharing the photographs, license plates and location information with out-of-state entities. Activists Bennett, Lagleva and Evans appear to stand on solid ground, as two state laws prevent California law enforcement from engaging in these practices.

A 2015 California law, SB 34, regulates the use of data from automated license plate recognition systems, and specifically prohibits police from sharing the ALPR information with agencies outside of the state. Public documents show that Doyle shares and transfers ALPR data with at least 18 federal agencies and 424 out-of-state agencies, which include small and large police departments around the country.

The 2017 California Values Act, also called the “sanctuary law,” SB 54, limits the use of local resources to assist federal immigration enforcement agencies, which includes ICE and Customs and Border Protection. Doyle shares and transfers ALPR information with both federal immigration enforcement agencies, according to documents obtained by the ACLU through public records requests.

Doyle’s office currently has 12 cameras in use. Eight of the cameras are issued to the patrol division and four cameras are assigned to the auto-theft division. How much data can 12 cameras gather on Marin residents and visitors?

Last year, Doyle recorded 821,244 scans of license plates and specific location information with the ALPR readers. It’s enough to make a law-abiding citizen want to stop driving.

What’s even more interesting is how few vehicles are detected that may have been involved in a crime. Out of the 821,244 scans in Marin during 2020, 216 “hits” were found, a mere 0.02% of scans.

How much it costs the Sheriff’s Office to collect, transfer and share the data is not yet known. However, it appears that any amount may be a waste of taxpayer money based on the program’s lack of success. Still, Doyle continues the practice, performing hundreds of thousands of scans annually, according to the lawsuit.

Bennett didn’t have to think twice about becoming involved in the lawsuit against Doyle. As a longtime immigrant rights activist and co-chair of ICE Out of Marin, Bennett said she knew the Sheriff was sharing this data with ICE. She had seen the pertinent information gleaned from California Public Records Act Requests.

“I am very concerned about it,” Bennett said. “The Sheriff has been targeting our immigrant population for a long time and has been acting in ways that benefit traditional law enforcement ideals. My definition of public safety is much more benign, inclusive and optimistic. It doesn’t criminalize people for, God forbid, wanting to come to this country. I’ve been aware of the Sheriff’s misdeeds regarding immigrants for a long time.”

In an attempt to avoid litigation with Doyle, activists Bennett, Lagleva and Evans sent the Sheriff a letter on Sept. 29 regarding the issues. They say Doyle never responded.

Doyle also refuses to speak with the media about the recently filed litigation, although a brief  statement appears on the Marin County Sheriff’s Office website. It states the Sheriff’s Office made “significant changes” to the program after receiving recommendations from the California State Auditor last year. The statement fails to delineate the specific changes and the lawsuit claims that the Sheriff has continued to break state data-sharing laws as recently as August.

Vasudha Talla, an ACLU attorney representing the three activists, said she wants to see the communications between Doyle and the California State Auditor. Although the ACLU has made a public records request for all the documents, they have received only a few emails.

The Sheriff’s Office’s statement goes on to say the program does not identify a person’s ethnicity or immigration status. It concludes by stating the Sheriff’s Office will defend its policy in court.

While a photo, license plate and driving routes may not identify the ethnicity or immigration status of a person, it certainly provides a roadmap to their front door.

Similar lawsuits may follow in other California jurisdictions. Talla encourages law enforcement agencies around the state to pay attention to the lawsuit against Doyle.

“We filed suit in Marin because the Sheriff has a history of harmful practices towards immigrant community members,” Talla said. “And so, we hope to make clear to this particular sheriff, in this particular department, that it’s not okay to engage in these practices of surveilling the community and sharing their personal information with ICE.”

Nikki Silverstein
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