House Democrats Fail To Block Amendment Banning License Plate Surveillance Cameras By Department of Transportation
Yesterday, the appropriations bill for the Department of Transportation passed the U.S. House of Representatives – but not without many amendments. My mind was caught by a particular amendment offered by Darrell Issa which passed with a vote of 297 to 129.
The amendment bans the Department of Transportation from purchasing any cameras “for the purpose of collecting or storing vehicle license plate numbers.”. The placement of cameras for reading license plate numbers has aroused strong civil liberties concerns, as the FBI has been using these cameras to feed into a system that is capable of tracking where Americans go in their cars, even when they are not suspected of any crime. Such use is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment’s limitation of search to that approved by a warrant specifically noting the people to be searched. Cameras that automatically photograph license plates and upload the photographs to computers that can automatically read the license plate numbers and store the information are creating a huge number of permanent security checkpoints on roads across the country.
“Increasingly, all of this data is being fed into massive databases that contain the location information of many millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years,” explains ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump. The Department of Homeland Security has, in the past, requested these records for its own purposes, without any search warrant.
An extra layer of interest in this amendment comes when we consider who supports the amendment and who does not. Representative Issa himself does not have a strong record of working to protect civil liberties. Furthermore, most of the U.S. Representatives who voted against the Issa amendment were Republicans. Like Issa, the Republican Party in general has a record of approving the federal government’s attacks on the Fourth Amendment’s protections from unreasonable search and seizure. Only 19 House Republicans voted against the Issa amendement.
The Democratic vote was split, with 110 voting against the Issa amendment and 72 voting in favor of it. Both liberal Democrats and right wing Democrats were on both sides of the vote.
So, what’s going on with this amendment?
Last year, a similar amendment to Transportation funding was passed by the House, though it does not appear to have made it into the final funding bill to be passed into law. That amendment was introduced by Louisiana Republican John Fleming, though, not by Darrell Issa. Fleming used civil liberties arguments to justify his amendment, saying, “In the wake of the revelations about NSA data collection, Americans are now learning that police cars and traffic cameras are similarly accumulating a picture of their lives….Just like phone metadata, this geo-location data with time stamps can be used to reconstruct intimate details of our lives, who we visit, where we worship, from whom we seek counseling, and how we might legally and legitimately protest the actions of our own government.”
Last year, as this year, the majority of Democrats voted against the amendment to ban the Department of Transportation cameras from capturing or storing license plate numbers across the USA. In opposition to that bill, Representative Tom Latham offered the weak protest that the legislation could be used to block the purchase of cameras used for purposes other than surveillance that might only accidentally take photographs that include a license plate number. That objection clearly doesn’t apply to the Issa amendment this year, which states that cameras are banned if they are purchased for the “purpose” of capturing or storing license plate numbers.
So, why are so many congressional Democrats consistently opposed to legislation that would protect Americans from unconstitutional search and seizure, and why do most congressional Republicans support it, when they have demonstrated such strong contempt for constitutional rights in other occasions?
The text of any debate that may have accompanied yesterday’s vote has not yet been released by the Library of Congress, and corporate journalists are not yet reporting on this amendment. So, for the time being, this vote is a mystery. When more material becomes available, however, I’ll do what I can to clear it up.