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A Chicago police squad car equipped with license plate readers is parked outside the 9th District police station as bare trees and cloudy sky are seen in the background.

A Chicago police car equipped with license plate readers is parked outside the Deering Police District station in the Bridgeport neighborhood in 2022.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Illinois' use of cameras that read license plates amounts to 'dragnet surveillance,' lawsuit alleges

A lawsuit filed in federal court in Illinois seeks to end the state’s use of cameras that record license plates, geolocations and photos, saying they violate the Fourth and 14th amendments.

A lawsuit accuses Illinois State Police and state officials of operating an unconstitutional “system of dragnet surveillance” through license plate-reading cameras that track motorist’s whereabouts.

The suit, filed last week by Cook County residents Stephanie Scholl and Frank Bednarz, names the state police, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Attorney General Kwame Raoul as defendants.

“Defendants are tracking anyone who drives to work in Cook County — or to school, or a grocery store, or a doctor’s office, or a pharmacy, or a political rally, or a romantic encounter, or family gathering — every day, without any reason to suspect anyone of anything, and are holding onto those whereabouts just in case they decide in the future that some citizen might be an appropriate target of law enforcement,” the suit said.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, “challenges the warrantless, suspicion-less, and entirely unreasonable” tracking as a violation of the Fourth and 14th amendments.

The cameras — known as automated license plate readers — are described by many in law enforcement as essential in their work, and they have been proliferating over the last decade. The devices use software to scan the license plates of every passing car, recording the date, time, GPS coordinates and even pictures.

Numerous vehicles travel on the I-90 Kennedy Expressway near Milwaukee Avenue on Dec. 7, 2023.

In 2021, the Illinois State Police was awarded more than $12 million in grant money to expand its network of high-definition surveillance cameras after a surge in expressway shootings.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The majority of large police departments in the country now use them. Automated license plate readers in Chicago log 200 million license plates a year, giving police a detailed pattern about the daily habits of motorists and offering real-time alerts about cars wanted in crimes.

In 2021, state police were awarded more than $12 million in grant money to expand their network of high-definition surveillance cameras after a surge in expressway shootings.

The grant came a year after Pritzker signed the Tamara Clayton Expressway Camera Act, which required the state to install new cameras on expressways. The act was named for a postal worker who was shot and killed on her way to work on Interstate 57 in 2019.

Hundreds of cameras have been installed in Cook County since that act was signed, the lawsuit states.

According to the suit, the images taken by state police cameras are stored in the Motorola Law Enforcement Archival Reporting Network for 90 days, but that retention limit can be changed at any time.

“Defendants could therefore extend the retention of such data indefinitely at their discretion,” the suit states. “ISP is tracking the movements of millions of citizens, including plaintiffs, and just holding onto that mass surveillance data in case one day some police officer decides to target plaintiffs for specific investigation — warranted or unwarranted.”

Information on drivers is being collected without a warrant or suspicion, the suit alleges, stating: “ISP does not even have unreasonable suspicion: they have no suspicion at all. Rather, they collect all the public movements of every car they can in Illinois — and every car they can around the country.”

State police, Raoul and Pritzker’s offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit seeks an order barring the state from operating its current license plate reader network and for no additional cameras to be installed.

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