In these Kansas towns, driving a car makes you a potential criminal

Travis Perry
|
Jun 19, 2014 5:00 AM
In these Kansas towns, driving a car makes you a potential criminal
HANDS OFF: Police in Prairie Village, Lenexa and Overland Park won't hand out personal requests for automatic license plate reader data, citing a state exemption for "criminal investigation records."

HANDS OFF: Police in Prairie Village, Lenexa and Overland Park won’t hand out personal requests for automatic license plate reader data, citing a state exemption for “criminal investigation records.”

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — Have you ever driven a car through Lenexa, Olathe, Overland Park or Prairie Village? Then congratulations! Local law enforcement considers you and me — everyone on the road — to be a potential criminal.

In April, my fellow Watchdog.org reporter Kathryn Watson had the tenacity to ask police in Alexandria, Va., what information they had collected on her through the use of automatic license plate readers. What she found was nothing short of creepy. Law enforcement records tracked her vehicle home, around Old Town Alexandria and even on her way to Bible study.

My curiosity piqued, I set out to do the same, only to run into a brick wall tossed up by law enforcement.

I have no way of knowing when and where police in Lenexa, Olathe, Overland Park or Prairie Village have recorded my movements with automatic license plate readers, because all three departments cite an exemption to the Kansas Open Records Act.

What exemption is that, you ask? The one explicitly reserved for “criminal investigation records.”

I was more than a little alarmed the first time this blockade was tossed in my face. Sure, I have a few speeding tickets on my record, but as far as I know I haven’t committed any criminal activity in the aforementioned municipalities. Wes Jordan, Prairie Village chief of police, John Knoll, Overland Park assistant city attorney, and MacKenzie Harvison, Lenexa deputy city attorney, assured me I wasn’t the focus of any investigation.

I’m still waiting on clarification from the Olathe Police Department, but I expect a similar response.

With that being the case, I’m left with only one alternative.

These law enforcement agencies consider everyone to be a potential criminal — you just may not have committed the crime yet.

“It seems to infer that,” said Holly Weatherford, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

For the record, state law defines criminal investigation records as any police evidence or information “compiled in the process of preventing, detecting or investigating violations of criminal law.”

“To me, you know, it seems like a core principle in our society that government doesn’t invade peoples’ privacy, they don’t collect information about citizens and our activities just in case they do something wrong,” Weatherford said. “And refusing to disclose your personal activities or information to you claiming it’s a part of a criminal investigation seems to fly in the face of that principle.”

My colleague in Virginia was able to acquire her information because of the state’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Act, which instructs public entities to fulfill open records requests for personal information like this. Kansas has no such directive.

“Kansas has one of the most restrictive open records laws in the country, so we’re paying attention and we’re really interested when people are asking for information and being denied and for what reason, we’re really trying to understand how the different government agencies in Kansas use those exemptions,” Weatherford added. “This is one I haven’t heard yet.”

For what it’s worth, Harvison said while Lenexa wouldn’t give me any actual information because of the cited exemption, they don’t yet have any record of my plates in the system.

Hooray?

Related: ACLU decries KS police database as ‘tool for mass surveillance’

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at @muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!