MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Minnesota lawmakers are preparing to crack down on how police use license plate readers.

Police cameras collect tens of thousands of license plate images, track vehicle locations and can check plates against a database of wanted vehicles.

Police can keep data on file, even if drivers are not suspected of any crime.

“I don’t think that that is appropriate,” said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul.

Lesch is a member of the Legislative Commission on Data Practices, which is recommending law changes this session.

The commission is proposing guidelines that would forbid police from keeping license plate data if it’s not part of an investigation.

“If you are innocent, there is no reason for law enforcement or government in this country to be keeping information on you [that] they can later [use to] prosecute you,” Lesch said.

The commission is recommending a bill to classify all license plate reader data as private, unless it’s part of a criminal investigation. Even then, it would require police to go to court for permission.

Police investigators don’t like it: They say license plate readers are an effective crime fighting tool that’s given them a major “leg up” on criminals.

“Most people are innocent and are not causing any problems,” said Dave Wiegel, an inspector with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. “But there are people who do do the crime, and this information can be very valuable in solving some of these crimes.”

Law enforcement officials are proposing they be allowed to keep all license plate images they collect for 180 days as a crime fighting tool, as well as restricting access to any computer data.

But skeptical lawmakers say police purchased the equipment and implemented the license plate reader program before establishing guidelines about how the data would be used or retained.

“What business does law enforcement have to surveil all of us, all the time?” asked Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.

The 2015 Minnesota Legislature could also debate privacy issues related to the use of drones and body cameras by local police.

Pat Kessler

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