Illinois sued over proliferation of license plate reading cameras as violation of 4th Amendment

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the ALPRs around Chicago are "another step to enhance public safety for residents of and visitors to the nation’s third-largest city.”
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker

Summons have been sent to the Illinois State Police, Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Gov. J.B. Pritzker in a case challenging the use of automatic license plate reading cameras across the state.

On Thursday in the Northern District of Illinois federal court, the Liberty Justice Center filed the lawsuit. Reilly Stephens, counsel on the case, said the ALPRs are virtually everywhere.

“Every time you drive on one of these expressways, they are tracking every time you go past one of these cameras,” he said. “They’re feeding that into a national database which is shared by thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country.”

In January of this year, ISP said they were increasing the use of technology to “target and track criminal activity.”

“Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) capture a visual of vehicle license plates and anytime a wanted or suspected vehicle is detected by an ALPR, an alert is issued and law enforcement are better able to locate and track the vehicle,” the agency said.

Pritzker said then that the ALPRs around Chicago are "another step to enhance public safety for residents of and visitors to the nation’s third-largest city.”

By the end of 2022, ISP said 289 ALPRs were installed in the Chicago area. In 2023, 139 additional ALRPs were installed in Cook, St. Claire, Champaign and Morgan counties. For 2024, the agency said it planned installations in Macon, Madison, Peoria, Bureau, Lake and Winnebago counties with additional camera in Boon, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Henry, Kane, Kendall, LaSalle, McHenry, Rock Island, Sangamon and Will counties as well along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

An annual ISP ALPR report from August 2023 showed installation in Cook and St. Clair counites cost $6.6 million. Maintenance cost $100,000. The total number of detections, the number of license plate reads captured by the system, is 1.5 million. The number of inquiries where the investigation involved criminal offense totaled 282,118.

The budget legislators approved this week for the coming fiscal year includes $7 million for the Illinois Department of Transportation to install cameras and automatic license plate readers on state routes.

While Stephens said the dragnet may help track a fleeing criminal suspect, it’s capable of tracking much more.

“Every time you went to the doctor, every time you went to a political rally, a Trump rally, a Joe Biden rally, a Black Lives Matter rally, an NRA event,” he said.

The lawsuit argues the system is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted search and seizure.

“The permanent tracking of every citizen and all of their travels and whereabouts is a bridge too far,” he said.

ALPRs aren’t just being used by the public sector, private parties like homeowners’ associations, shopping malls and movie theaters are using them.

“The difference is the movie theater can’t throw me in jail and that’s the power that governments have and that’s why we have more restrictions on governments’ ability to track our whereabouts at all times,” he said.

A spokesperson for ISP said ISP directives and public acts dictate that access and use of ALPR data “shall be for law enforcement purposes only and in compliance with all applicable training, laws, and administrative rules.”

The data is maintained within the Law Enforcement Archival Reporting Network storage platform for 90 days.

“Information obtained from the ALPR system, software, associated databases, and data shall not be disseminated to the public except as authorized or required by law,” the agency said. “Information obtained from the ALPR system, software, associated databases, and data may be disseminated to other law enforcement agencies or officers only to be used for law enforcement or public safety functions.”

Stephens was skeptical that the rules are strict enough to stave off abuse.

“I just don’t trust them, to be honest,” he said. “I understand they're not supposed to use this to check up on their ex-girlfriends but I have yet to see anything in the actual processes here that would prevent that so we think that they’re either going to have to shut down the cameras or they're going to have … probable cause and warrant requirements that other Fourth Amendment searches must adhere to.”

The agency said “Misuse or abuse of the ALPR system, software, associated databases, or data may be subject to sanctions and/or disciplinary action.”

A hearing for the case has yet to be set.