San Diego County police track cars

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

Police agencies throughout San Diego County continue to spend thousands of dollars every year on technology that tracks the location of people’s cars, even though the information collected most often has nothing to do with solving crime or protecting the public. 

And a monthslong inewsource investigation found that until recently, five police departments across the county have been violating state law by sharing this information with agencies all over the United States. Two of those departments — police in Carlsbad and Coronado — decided to change their policies after questions from inewsource.

They’re called automated license plate readers. For more than a decade, police have been using cameras mounted on top of patrol cars, or fixed objects such as light poles, to capture any license plate that comes into view. They can extract the time, date, location and sometimes a partial image of the vehicle, and automatically compare the plate number to a list of vehicles that police are looking for. 

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The information is also stored in a searchable database for up to one year, and can be shared with select agencies.