"Gallatin County law enforcement will be installing a camera that reads license plate numbers along Highway 191." That was a news story earlier this week in The Bozeman Daily Chronicle after a legal notice was placed in the paper by local authorities.
Is this legal? That was a question asked by one of our radio show listeners. So I reached out to the guy many of us would consider Montana's privacy expert, State Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R-Billings).
Zolnikov tells me license plate readers are legal in Montana but are very restricted. He says the data has to be deleted, it can't be shared without specific plate requests, and it can only be used for certain crimes. The plates also have to be verified before a person can be pulled over.
The Belgrade News has a good writeup on the story as well. They spoke with Task Missouri River Drug Task Force Commander and Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office Captain Ryan Stratman, who says that surrounding states have seen a lot of benefits after putting license plate readers to use catching sexual predators, locating missing children, and identifying drug traffickers.
As mentioned above, there are legal limits regarding the use of these license plate readers. The pro-privacy Reason magazine praised legislation here in Montana that put guardrails into effect limiting how license plate readers could be used:
Montana will now significantly restrict the way police in the state are allowed to use automatic license plate readers (ALPRs). The new law limits police use to vehicles that are "stolen, associated with a wanted, missing, or endangered person, registered to a person against whom there is an outstanding warrant, in violation of commercial trucking requirements, involved in case-specific criminal investigative surveillance, involved in a homicide, shooting, or other major crime or incident; or in the vicinity of a recent crime and may be connected to that crime."