Coral Gables Resident Sues Florida Over License-Plate Readers

Automatic license-plate readers in Pensacola Beach, Florida.
Automatic license-plate readers in Pensacola Beach, Florida. Photo by Tony Webster / Flickr
click to enlarge Automatic license-plate readers in Pensacola Beach, Florida. - PHOTO BY TONY WEBSTER / FLICKR
Automatic license-plate readers in Pensacola Beach, Florida.
In the seven years since Coral Gables began installing automatic license-plate readers, resident Raul Mas Canosa estimates the city has captured images of his car "thousands of times." It's a reasonable guess: By the end of the year, the City Beautiful is on track to scan more than 30 million license plates despite having a population of only 50,000.

In a new lawsuit, Mas Canosa — the youngest brother of Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa — claims those photos are a massive invasion of his privacy. On October 5, he filed a complaint against the City of Coral Gables, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Florida Department of State in which he calls the license-plate readers unconstitutional.

"Where your car moves in space over time is very invasive, and the license-plate readers that are set up by Coral Gables are essentially like the police are following you around 24 hours a day, anywhere your car goes," says Caleb Kruckenberg, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based New Civil Liberties Alliance, which is representing Mas Canosa.

Coral Gables City Attorney Miriam Soler Ramos told New Times the city was served with the lawsuit Friday but declined to comment further.

The case appears to be the first in Florida targeting the use of automatic license-plate readers. State legislators passed rules about the new technology in 2014, after which the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determined that license-plate data could be stored for up to three years. Mas Canosa's lawsuit takes issue with the fact that FDLE did not create formal rules for municipalities, only a document outlining "best practices."

With new advances in technology, Kruckenberg says, it's now entirely possible — and legal — for Florida governments to track drivers anywhere they've been for up to three years.

"It’s church, it’s the doctor, it’s how often you go to the liquor store, anything that you might think is private, and suddenly the police can just pull it up whenever they want to," the attorney says.

FDLE spokesperson Gretl Plessinger said Monday that the agency had not yet been served with the complaint. A representative for the Florida Department of State did not respond to an email from New Times.

In Coral Gables, the license-plate readers are part of a larger crime-fighting push by city leaders. When the idea was proposed, the police department said the license-plate data would be retained only 30 days. But after the state set a much longer maximum retention time, the city changed its policy to allow police to search three years of data. Coral Gables now has more than 30 cameras across the city and shares the data with at least 80 other law enforcement agencies, according to Mas Canosa's complaint.

The lawsuit cites a decision earlier this summer in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government entities, including police departments, generally need a warrant to access cell-phone data regarding a person's whereabouts. The decision was considered a victory for privacy advocates and leads Kruckenberg to believe license-plate data is "the next progression in that line of thinking."

"There’s long been this argument in the courts that whatever you show off to the public, whatever is available in public, you have no privacy interest in that," Kruckenberg says. "For the first time, the court said there’s a limit." 
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb