Marin activists declared victory last week when Marin County and Sheriff Robert Doyle settled a lawsuit which claimed Doyle’s office illegally shared the license plate data and location information of Marin motorists with hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country.
Under the settlement agreement, the sheriff and his successors must abide by two state laws, SB 34 and SB 54. SB 34 prohibits sensitive data, collected by surveillance cameras, from being transferred to federal and out-of-state agencies, while SB 54 prevents state and local resources from being used to assist federal immigration enforcement.
The sheriff did not admit to any violations in the settlement agreement. Instead, Doyle made admissions that he understands the meaning of the laws and will follow them.
Long-time Marin residents, Lisa Bennett, Cesar S. Lagleva, and Tara Evans, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, filed the lawsuit in October against the sheriff and the County of Marin, alleging public documents showed Doyle was sharing automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) data with at least 424 out-of-state agencies and 18 federal agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
Since 2010, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office has gathered surveillance information through an ALPR system. It began sharing the data in 2014. The cameras capture images of the license plate and vehicle, as well as GPS data with a time and date stamp.
“This location data contains personal information, revealing where we live, where we work, where we worship and when we go to the doctor’s office,” Matt Cagle, an ALCU attorney involved in the case, said. “The government has the location information for residents and visitors traveling through the county. What we have seen is troubling. ICE has tapped into databases of information like this and used the sensitive data points to locate, target and deport immigrants.”
Keeping ICE out of Marin was a goal of the lawsuit. Doyle is frequently criticized for cooperating with ICE. While it’s within the sheriff’s power to cease collaborations with the federal agency, Doyle has chosen to continue to assist ICE, despite making a few small changes over the past few years.
The sheriff’s staff stopped inquiring about a person’s immigration status and no longer responds to ICE requests regarding release dates for low-level offenders. In addition, the sheriff barred ICE from entering the jail for inmate transfers but the agency now waits in the parking area for the release of people it wants to take into custody.
Although the sheriff’s office must stop providing the automated license plate recognition data with ICE, it is under no obligation to stop collecting the information and may still share it with other non-federal law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies in California. Doyle declined an interview request but did release a statement.
“The Marin County Sheriff’s Office is pleased with the settlement of [the] ACLU lawsuit,” the statement says. “We have evaluated the policies and procedures surrounding the use and sharing of information from our ALPR system and made changes to ensure no information is shared with out of state agencies unless allowed per the terms of the settlement agreement.”
It’s unclear what Doyle might be referring to when he states that his office won’t share information with out of state agencies unless allowed by the settlement agreement. Both the settlement agreement and SB 34 prohibit any sharing of the data with out of state agencies.
The ACLU considers the collection and distribution of the data to be problematic because it’s not always known how the data is used, according to Cagle. It could violate individuals’ privacy and civil liberties, especially for those in marginalized groups, such as immigrants or people of color.
“The information could be used to identify stolen vehicles,” Cagle said. “Or it could be used to identify folks at a protest.”
It would be nice to know exactly what the sheriff’s office is doing with the data it collects from Marin residents and visitors. In 2020, Doyle recorded 821,244 scans of license plates and specific location information with the ALPR readers.
What’s even more interesting is how few vehicles are detected that may have been involved in a crime. Out of all the license plate images gathered in 2020, only 216 “hits” were found, a mere 0.02%.
“There are aspects of ALPR that make it look like it’s not a very effective means of surveillance,” Lisa Bennett, one of the activists who filed the lawsuit, said. “Very few [scans] actually lead to anything. So why is the sheriff surveilling an entire population?”
Marin activists have been calling for a sheriff’s oversight committee with teeth – subpoena power. AB 1185, state legislation passed in 2020, gives the Marin Board of Supervisors the power to create a committee to hold the sheriff’s office accountable for its policies and actions.
“This lawsuit settlement is one great argument for an oversight committee,” Bennett said. “It was not only an acknowledgement that the sheriff needs to change his practices, but it also cost the county $49,000 – the amount included in the settlement agreement to pay for [the plaintiffs’] legal fees.”
Another activist, Cesar Lagleva, who was also a party to the lawsuit, agrees wholeheartedly. He encourages all Marin residents to support AB 1185 by writing to the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
“We have enough evidence to suggest there needs to be accountability in the sheriff’s office,” Lagleva said. “These practices have had a disproportionate negative impact against BIPOC and poor residents here in Marin County.
Until an oversight committee is established, it’s up to community activists to keep close watch over the sheriff’s office, Cagle said. It’s important to ensure the sheriff follows SB 34 and SB 54 and other laws designed to protect our immigrant neighbors and community members.
The ACLU hopes the outcome of the Marin lawsuit will send a warning to all agencies in California that are violating the law by sharing ALPR data with out-of-state and federal law enforcement. Police departments in Tiburon and several areas in San Diego stopped the practice after the lawsuit was filed.
“We don’t have any other active cases right now,” Cagle said. “Basically, this should be putting other California law enforcement agencies on notice that it is illegal to share location information collected by ALPR with out of state and federal agencies. The law is clear and these public agencies need to get in line and comply if they’re not already.”
Bennett says the heart of the matter with the lawsuit is the privacy issue, which affects all residents.
“What if an undocumented woman from Texas wants to drive to California for an abortion and Texas wants to know from us is she in your state?” Bennett said. “We don’t want them to know that. This has implications not just for undocumented immigrants but for anyone who values their privacy.”