Traffic on I-5
Vehicles move along Interstate 5 near downtown San Diego, Jan. 4, 2022. License plate readers are used to track vehicles throughout San Diego County. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

A legal agreement in Northern California will impact the way two police departments in San Diego County handle drivers’ location data.

Activists represented by the American Civil Liberties Union announced Wednesday a settlement in their lawsuit against the Marin County Sheriff for sharing data collected from automated license plate readers with out-of-state and federal agencies, in violation of two state laws.

As part of the agreement, Marin County and Sheriff Robert Doyle agreed to only share drivers’ location data with other law enforcement agencies in California and to pay $49,000 in attorney fees. 

“This settlement is a victory for disfavored and marginalized people, including immigrants, who historically have been subjected to civil rights abuses through invasive surveillance by police,” said Vasudha Talla, Immigrants’ Rights Program Director at the ACLU of Northern California.

How police handle location data has become a point of contention for activists fighting for a number of causes, as many states across the country debate laws that criminalize women seeking abortion or parents obtaining gender-affirming care for their children.

An inewsource investigation in January revealed that half of San Diego County’s 10 local law enforcement agencies had been illegally sharing license plate data with other agencies across the United States. Small police departments in states as far away as Florida, New York and Connecticut have been given access to location data from drivers in San Diego County.

Police and city officials in Escondido and La Mesa initially doubled down, defending the practice of sharing data out of state and claiming they weren’t doing anything wrong, but later agreed to temporarily pause the practice. 

After the Marin County settlement was announced, La Mesa police Capt. Matt Nicholass told inewsource that the department will end the practice altogether. But officials in Escondido aren’t ready to make that commitment. 

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