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Utah panel advances Big Brother vs. First Amendment bill

Published February 26, 2014 4:26 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Lawmakers took a first step Wednesday to tweak laws about automatic license plate readers in ways they hope will rein in Big Brother surveillance of where people drive and not run afoul of the First Amendment.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-0 for SB222 and sent it to the full Senate.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, sponsor of the bill, said he hopes it will resolve a lawsuit filed earlier this month against the state by Digital Recognition Network Inc. and Vigilant Solutions Inc. over a law he successfully pushed last year.

The companies contend Utah now limits use of such technology to law officers and parking-enforcement agents and limits how long they may archive data gathered. They say it violates their First Amendment right to take pictures of license plates in public places and store them.

Weiler's new bill would change the law to allow private companies to take the photos and store them as long as they like. But it would not allow state and local government agencies to buy them from any company that does not comply with the same storage restrictions they face.

Utah law allows those government agencies to hold data only for up to nine months.

"This is a way to preserve and protect the First Amendment, which is the object of the lawsuit, but still tighten down law enforcement's use of this private data," Weiler said. "If your license plate is scanned often enough and put into a database, it eventually becomes like unto a warrantless search. It's a little bit too Big Brother to me. It's a little bit creepy to me and an invasion of privacy."

Committee Chairman Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, said, "It's tantamount to stalking."

Marina Lowe, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the bill as a good balancing of rights and lauded restrictions on government storage of such data.

"To know a person's location can speak volumes about them and their habits," she said. It can allow deducing "whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband."