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Senators question DOJ’s tracking of license plates

The top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday asked the Justice Department to provide more information about a program that allows officials to track millions of vehicles around the country.

“We appreciate that all of these new technologies are potentially useful law enforcement tools,” Judiciary Chairman Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyBarrett confirmation stokes Democrats' fears over ObamaCare On The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Grassley: Voters should be skeptical of Biden's pledge to not raise middle class taxes MORE (R-Iowa) and ranking member Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySchumer says he had 'serious talk' with Feinstein, declines to comment on Judiciary role Durbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (D-Vt.) said in a letter to Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderAlarm grows over Trump team's efforts to monitor polls The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden on Trump: 'He'll leave' l GOP laywers brush off Trump's election remarks l Obama's endorsements Obama endorses Warnock in crowded Georgia Senate race MORE.

“But we remain concerned that government programs that track citizens’ movements, see inside homes, and collect data from the phones of innocent Americans raise serious privacy concerns.”

They asked that the Judiciary Committee be briefed on the program by February 13.

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The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has said that they track vehicles around the U.S.-Mexico border in connection with drug trafficking investigations. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that that system had been expanded around the country and was being used in cases unrelated to the drug trade.

The database of license plates can be accessed by state and local law enforcement agencies.

Grassley and Leahy said they were especially concerned about the potential use of the database to track motorists and target them for so-called asset forfeiture — which allows law enforcement agencies to keep property they seize, sometimes without charging the owner with a crime.

“Federal asset forfeiture programs have been the subject of recent controversy and we believe that greater transparency and oversight of civil asset forfeiture is needed,” they said in the letter. “Any program that is dedicated to expanding the Justice Department’s forfeiture efforts requires similar oversight and accountability.”

Asset forfeiture was developed to fight drug crimes, but critics say that agencies around the country abuse the tactic to turn a profit.

Grassley, who as chairman will hold sway over what criminal justice legislation gets a vote this year, has said that asset forfeiture reform is a likely area for bipartisan action.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul rips 'leftwing media' for focusing on COVID-19 cases: 'Mortality rates are plummeting' Rand Paul suggests restaurants should hire COVID-19 survivors as servers during pandemic Two Loeffler staffers test positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday revived legislation that would significantly curtail the federal government’s authority to aid states in seizing assets.

The letter from Grassley and Leahy is only the latest to come out of the Judiciary Committee taking issue with police tactics.

They senators have also raised concerns about the use of radar technology to see inside of residences and about technology that helps law enforcement collect data from cell phones.