The Marin County Sheriff’s Office illegally shares license plate data with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and hundreds of out-of-state law enforcement agencies, according to a lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of local activists. 

The sheriff’s department uses automatic license plate readers, or A.L.P.R.s, to capture photographs of vehicles, then shares the information through a private database that can be accessed by agencies nationwide, including ICE. Attorneys with the A.C.L.U. and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, alleged that the sharing of this data, which can paint a clear picture of a person’s life and routines, violates California law. 

“This lawsuit is the first of its kind,” plaintiff Tara Evans, a Stinson Beach resident and activist, said in a statement from the A.C.L.U. “It sends a strong message that all people have the right to live with dignity regardless of their immigration status, and that people have the right to move freely without having their personal details shared with the federal government or saved in a database without their knowledge or permission.”

The three plaintiffs, all longtime Marin activists, have been involved in pushing for more oversight of Sheriff Robert Doyle and protections for undocumented residents. Plaintiff Lisa Bennett, who co-chairs the group ICE Out of Marin, said the surveillance practiced by the sheriff’s department violates personal freedoms and is especially threatening to immigrants and people of color.

“Sheriff Doyle’s version of public safety is racially biased, punitive, and pursued through illegal means,” Ms. Bennett said in a statement. “I have a different understanding of public safety: it’s that all people, no matter who they are or where they come from, have the ability to move freely without the threat of unlawful harassment by law enforcement.”

Cesar Lagleva, an immigration activist in San Rafael, joined the suit as a plaintiff to push the sheriff’s office to cut its ties to immigration enforcement. At the sheriff’s TRUTH Act forums last year, activists were unable to get clear answers for how personal information was shared with ICE, he said.

“I’ve been aware of it for a long time but I didn’t fully recognize the gravity of the situation until I was connected with the A.C.L.U,” Mr. Lagleva told the Light. “This is a major piece of the puzzle in terms of how immigrant communities and BIPOC communities are surveilled.”

The lawsuit’s allegations are primarily focused not on the license plate readers, but on the way the department shares the information they capture. The agency uses a database operated by Vigilant Solutions, a Livermore-based private company, to collect and share A.L.P.R. data. Through the database, license plate photographs with time and location can be accessed by more than 400 out-of-state law enforcement agencies across the country, from small-town local police departments to federal entities like the Drug Enforcement Agency. 

The A.C.L.U. alleges this data sharing violates two California laws. Senate Bill 34, passed in 2016, imposes specific requirements on any operator of automatic license plate readers to protect the privacy of drivers and prohibits transferring license plate data to out-of-state agencies. 

Last year, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office was among four California law enforcement agencies reprimanded in a state auditor’s report for inadequately protecting sensitive license plate data. Like the Fresno Police Department and Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, Marin lacked a policy regulating who has access to A.L.P.R. data and a policy for how the data will be destroyed, violating privacy and failing to meet the standards of S.B. 34.

A statement posted to the sheriff’s office website last week said the agency was aware of the lawsuit and has responded to the state’s report on S.B. 34. “Following recommendations from the California State Auditor in 2020, we have made significant changes to our policies and practices on the L.P.R. program,” the statement read.

Brenton Schneider, the agency’s public information officer, directed the Light’s request for further comment to Marin County counsel Brian Washington. Mr. Washington wrote in an email that the county is “carefully reviewing” the suit. “It would be premature for our office to comment in more detail before we complete that review,” he wrote.

Most worrying to the plaintiffs is that Vigilant Solutions sells data to ICE and Customs and Border Protection. The California Values Act, passed in 2018, prohibits local law enforcement from engaging in immigration enforcement, including sharing personal information with ICE. A sheriff’s office report obtained by the A.C.L.U. through a public records request shows two sub-agencies focused on smuggling on the list of the department’s “sharing partners”: the National Targeting Center, a division of Customs and Border Protection, and the National Bulk Cash Smuggling Center, a division of ICE. 

“It’s the sheriff’s office that makes the decision of who to select as a sharing partner,” A.C.L.U. attorney Vasudha Talla said. “The sheriff isn’t a passive participant in this. Someone at the sheriff’s office selected those sharing partners.”

In addition, a 2019 report by the A.C.L.U. found that ICE frequently circumvented regulations by conducting searches of license plate data shared by local agencies through the database in order to surveil and arrest undocumented people.   

The sheriff’s office statement defended Marin’s use of A.L.P.R.s as fair. “The L.P.R. program does not identify anybody’s ethnicity or immigration status,” the statement read. “We will defend our L.P.R. policy in court.”

Last summer, Sheriff Doyle agreed to move transfers of inmates to ICE agents out of the private booking area of the jail and into a public lobby, under pressure from activists and county supervisors. The sheriff’s office also stopped collecting data on ICE arrests, although it continues to notify the agency when it releases inmates charged with serious or violent crimes. Last year, the jail notified ICE it was releasing inmates nine times, down from 13 the year before, and 72 in 2018. But those numbers only account for arrests ICE made immediately after inmates were released from jail. 

The plaintiffs are hoping the suit sheds light on the surveillance of Marin drivers, which has become widespread. In 2009, the Tiburon City Council unanimously approved the installation of two plate readers at the entrances to the town; funding was provided by the sheriff’s office. 

The following year, the sheriff’s office itself began using the devices. The department now operates 12 roving cameras, eight of which are assigned to the patrol division and four to the auto theft division.

Last year, the department scanned more than 820,000 license plates. Just 216 of those were plates of interest that led to further investigation. Local police departments in Marin, including the San Rafael Police Department and the Central Marin Police Department, also use license plate readers. 

“Short of choosing not to drive, there is no way for a person traveling within Marin County to avoid having their location information captured by the Sheriff’s A.L.P.R. surveillance system,” the A.C.L.U. attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “Yet many Marin County residents have no choice but to drive because Marin County is a car-dependent series of communities spread across 828 square miles and varied topographies.”

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said he’s concerned by the lawsuit’s allegations and by the widespread use of license plate surveillance. “I don’t feel comfortable with my license plate being read wherever I go,” he said.