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Minnesota police, privacy advocates strike long-sought deal on license plate readers

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ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Minnesota lawmakers said Tuesday that law enforcement leaders and civil liberties advocates had finally reached a compromise on the use of automated license plate readers and how long the data gleaned from such scans could be retained.

A House committee passed a bill that would allow agencies to keep the scan data for up to 30 days if a vehicle hasn't been reported stolen or been linked to an investigation. It would also add other safeguards, such as requiring agencies to log the cameras' usage and an annual audit to ensure they are being used properly.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Tony Cornish, said it was the product of some eleventh-hour negotiating between police representatives and privacy advocates.

"I think we finally got the bill to where we want it," the Vernon Center Republican said.

The small cameras, which are mounted on squad cars, scan license plates, logging the location and checking the numbers against a database of wanted vehicles. Lawmakers have tried to pass license plate reader regulations since 2013, only to get hung up over how long police can store data from scans on vehicles not suspected of breaking any laws.

Law enforcement officials have pushed for a longer retention period, saying it makes the readers a more powerful crime-solving tool. Privacy advocates say police have no business collecting data on law-abiding residents at all, and that any non-hits should be immediately tossed.

Neither side was completely pleased with Cornish's bill, which heads to the House floor after the public safety committee passed it on a voice vote. However, Cornish said lawmakers "want this to end" and law enforcement representatives said they could live with a shorter retention period than they wanted.

"Honestly, I do think 30 days is too short," said Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts. "We are trying to work hard to find a balance here."

Despite the long-awaited compromise between police and privacy advocates, the fight isn't over. Senators have advanced a bill with a 90-day retention period, and the new agreement won't change that "as of this moment," Sen. Ron Latz said Tuesday.

Latz, a St. Louis Park Democrat and chief author of a license plate reader bill in the Senate, said he wasn't part of any negotiations between law enforcement and privacy advocates; the compromise announced Tuesday was news to him.

"The longer the retention period, the more available and valuable the data is to solve open criminal investigations," he said.

Still, the compromise is a major change in the years-long slog to pass a law governing the use of license plate readers. Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, pleaded with his fellow lawmakers to get on board in order to put the issue to rest.

"It may not be perfectly great for you, because it's not perfectly great for me," said Schoen, who had previously pushed for a longer retention window. "I'm not happy with 30 days by a long shot."

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