McAuliffe vetoes police bills, ACLU promises lawsuit

and Contact ReporterThe Virginia Gazette

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced vetoes Friday for bills meant to rein in police surveillance, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia quickly promised a lawsuit to prevent police from storing large swaths of data from license plate readers.

McAuliffe said he feared both versions of legislation that the General Assembly sent his way last month were rife with potential unintentional consequences, and that the way they defined license plate numbers would have required the state to shut down traffic and tolling cameras.

Advocates disagreed with the governor's interpretation, and with his insistence that the bills were not fully thought through.

"I believe that he's getting some very bad advice," state Sen. Chap Petersen, who sponsored one of these bills, wrote on his blog.

This issue has been bouncing around since 2013, when then Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said police license plate readers were subject to the state's existing Data Act. These readers use cameras to capture license plate numbers and feed that into databases that can be used to track movement or find stolen vehicles.

A number of Hampton Roads departments have used the readers, though Newport News and Hampton said they gave them up in 2013. Newport News gave six of its readers to the treasurer's office, which said it plans to put them on sheriff's cars in an effort to catch delinquent taxpayers.

Cuccinelli's opinion meant that law enforcement couldn't simply create these databases without tying them to an active investigation or documenting a specific need, according to the ACLU. Not every department in the state abided by that interpretation.

The bills McAuliffe vetoed, the group argues, would have expanded police powers on license plate readers. It would have allowed them to keep information in their databases for seven or 60 days without an active criminal investigation, depending on which version of the bill McAuliffe picked.

"If the governor has a problem with limits on government collection of our personal information, he has a problem with the current law passed more than a decade ago to protect our privacy," ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said in a statement. "We will be going to court to ensure the Data Act is followed."

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor is "open to the intent of this legislation." He wants more discussion before laws are passed and plans to revisit the issue in legislation soon.

The governor signed a bill Friday that generally requires police to get a warrant before using a drone. The ACLU hailed that decision, which puts a simple regulatory structure in place for government drone usage once the state's moratorium on these devices lapses in July.

Some hope Virginia will become a hub for the growing drone industry. Virginia's rules will regulate only government drone usage. Personal usage is subject to federal rules.

The governor also signed a much debated package of ethics reforms, which target lobbyist gifts, limiting them to $100 a year per elected official. He also signed legislation that will require universities to place a notice on student transcripts when they're disciplined, or withdraw over, sexual offenses.

That was one of several change legislators approved this year to deal with the issue of on-campus sexual assaults. The transcript notation stemmed directly from the Hannah Graham case. Jesse Matthew, who is charged with the University of Virginia student's murder, dropped out of Christopher Newport University in 2003, after he was accused of sexual assault.

He left Liberty University under similar circumstances.

The governor also signed a lengthy package of day care regulation changes even though the House Republicans rejected a hoped for change that would have required fingerprint background checks for religious-based day cares, which are now exempt.

Republican legislators acknowledged, during last month's veto session, that the state could lose federal subsidies if it doesn't make the change, but not until 2017, leaving time to revisit the issue.

McAuliffe vetoed a bill tied to Obamacare, and an ongoing U.S. Supreme Court case that will determine whether taxpayer subsidies that are key to the landmark health care reforms can be used in states like Virginia, which never built a state policy exchange and relies on the federal exchange instead.

House Bill 2322 was meant to allow insurance companies to sell policies in Virginia that don't meet all of the Affordable Care Act's requirements, should the court strike down the subsidies. Speaker of the House William Howell called the bill "a proactive step" in a statement Friday and said the veto "jeopardizes the health coverage of thousands of Virginians who are caught in Obamacare's tangled mess."

McAuliffe, in his veto message, said the bill was premature and "decreases the state's flexibility and options."

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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