Metro Nashville Council defers vote on license plate readers

By: - September 8, 2021 5:00 am
Historic Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Historic Nashville Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Two competing ordinances allowing for the use of License Plate Readers (LPR) in Nashville’s public right of ways were deferred at Tuesday’s Metro Council meeting. 

Councilmember Courtney Johnston brought her ordinance back for consideration after indefinitely deferring it in April to get through the annual budget process. Her ordinance calls for LPRS to be affixed to poles and distributed equitably throughout the city so one area does not appear to receive undue attention. 

Metro Nashville Councilmember Courtney Johnston (Photo: Submitted)
Metro Nashville Councilmember Courtney Johnston (Photo: Submitted)

Johnston told the Lookout she has had requests for LPRs in her Crieve Hall-based district, including neighborhoods largely composed of residents of color, in order to help deter crime.

But the technology remains controversial and Bellevue Councilmember Dave Rosenberg introduced another LPR ordinance with narrower guidelines than Johnston’s ordinance. Language in Rosenberg’s draft alleges third-party LPR operators cooperate with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and that the use of LPRs “leads criminals to modify their behavior, such as stealing plates with greater frequency or obscuring their license plates, to thwart any benefit of these devices.”  Rosenberg’s ordinance requires data collected from LPRs to be deleted after 30 minutes. 

Johnston’s ordinance calls for LPR technology to be used for investigating criminal offenses including reckless driving and violent crime, plus identification of stolen vehicles, detection of parking violations and assistance with Amber or Silver alerts. Her ordinance explicitly states the technology is not capable of facial recognition and cannot be used for general surveillance or to determine the status of a driver’s insurance, driver’s license status or state-issued license plate validity. 

Metro Council began discussions of LPR technology when Antioch-area Councilwoman Joy Styles introduced an ordinance in Oct. 2020 in an attempt to curb drag racing in her district. That piece of legislation was withdrawn in January and Styles, among others, signed on as a cosponsor of Johnston’s ordinance after successfully amending the ordinance.

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk, Senator Brenda Gilmore and MNDP Chief Drake, among others, have all written letters of support for Johnston’s ordinance.

DA Funk Letter

A letter written in April by the American Muslim Advisory Council, API Middle TN, Conexion Americas, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and Worker’s Dignity, among others, urged council members to vote against Johnston’s bill.  

“Our sense is that if we have to have it, we have to put safeguards in so its not abused,” said Sabina Mohyuddin, director of the American Muslim Advisory Council.

Metro Councilmember Dave Rosenberg. (Photo from Dave for Bellevue website)
Metro Councilmember Dave Rosenberg (Photo from Dave for Bellevue website)

Johnston said the ACLU Tennessee is neutral on the bill, but Rosenberg has fears her ordinance will lead to persecution of marginalized citizens. 

“That’s a very imbalanced way of approaching public safety,” he said. 

Councilmember Sandra Sepulveda, a cosponsor of Rosenberg’s ordinance, agrees. 

“Once we open this door, it’s hard to shut. We’re heading down that path,” Sepulveda said of potential privacy infringement from the technology. 

Neighborhoods across Davidson County are already using LPRs as a means to deter crime.  Residents in North Nashville’s Haynes Park, for example, raised money to purchase Flock safety cameras to curb crime in their community. 

Metro Council deferred both the Johnston and Rosenberg ordinances in order to seek community input.

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