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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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley: Iowa can't afford to be 'babysitting' unaccompanied minors Anti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle On The Money: Senate confirms Gensler to lead SEC | Senate GOP to face off over earmarks next week | Top Republican on House tax panel to retire MORE (R-Iowa) and ranking member Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyCongress brings back corrupt, costly, and inequitably earmarks Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  Senate GOP opens door to earmarks MORE (D-Vt.) said in a letter to Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderHolder, Yates lead letter backing Biden pick for Civil Rights Division at DOJ Senate panel dukes it out over voting rights Progressive groups announce M voting rights effort 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 PaulThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Anti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle Fauci on Tucker Carlson vaccine comments: 'Typical crazy conspiracy theory' 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.