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ACLU Protests Police Scanning License Plates 821

dustman81 writes "The ACLU is objecting to the practice of police in Springdale, Ohio using an automated license-plate scanner on patrol cars to locate stolen vehicles or those whose owners are wanted on felony warrants. The scanner can read 900 license plates an hour traveling at highway speeds. So far, the scanner has located 95 stolen cars and helped locate 111 wanted felons. The locations of the license plates scanned are tagged with GPS data. All matches are stored (with no expiration date given) and can be brought up later and cross-referenced on a map. If the plate is wanted, the times and locations of where it was scanned can be referenced. The Springdale police department hopes to begin using the system soon to locate misdemeanor suspects. This system is also in use in British Columbia."
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ACLU Protests Police Scanning License Plates

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 29, 2007 @11:49PM (#20038083)
    It's a state-issued plate, and it's designed to be publicly viewable and even photographable in many areas (where photo blocking equipment is illegal). This is really not much different than officers looking at plats normally, just more efficient. Next up? GPS tagging plates.
    • by Space cowboy ( 13680 ) * on Monday July 30, 2007 @12:01AM (#20038193) Journal
      I'm guessing the bit they're worried about is the indefinite storage of the GPS-location of every licence-plate ever seen by the system. I'm not really sure you can liken that to an officer saying "I think I saw that guy 3 months ago". Effectively, the police are keeping tabs on cars (and by extension, people driving those cars), in an automated and later-searchable manner.

      If the idea is "innocent until guilty", then the innocent ought to be given the *rights* of an innocent man, not just have lip-service paid to it. One of those rights is not to be constantly under surveillance by police - in that respect it's very similar to having to produce "papers" at checkpoints, and having the checkpoint-cop record your movement for later use. The 4th amendment may be what they're thinking is being infringed - is it reasonable for the cops to be constantly checking your details, or should there be some level of expected result before they are allowed to do so ?


      • If the idea is "innocent until guilty", then the innocent ought to be given the *rights* of an innocent man, not just have lip-service paid to it. One of those rights is not to be constantly under surveillance by police ...

        No one is under surveilance since the are not being followed nor is their private space being violated. Random encounters in public is not surveillance.

        ... in that respect it's very similar to having to produce "papers" at checkpoints ...

        No, it is very different. You are not s
      • Puzzling... (Score:3, Insightful)

        by C10H14N2 ( 640033 ) rarely hear people screeching about the video records and databases kept by private toll operations.

        Are they somehow inherently more trustworthy? Do people think they don't share that information with government when demanded?

        This isn't terribly different, imho.
  • ACLU Wrong Again (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gbulmash ( 688770 ) * <> on Sunday July 29, 2007 @11:54PM (#20038131) Homepage Journal
    I'm sorry, but this is one of the instances where I disagree with the ACLU.

    You're out on the open road. You have no reasonable expectation of privacy. No civil right is being violated, IMO.

    Is this another example of us basically having less and less privacy when we leave our homes? Yes? Are our movements being recorded more and more and is it getting annoying? Yes? But claim that the police recording license plates on the open highway is unconstitutional? Can't side with you.

    • I agree with you, but it sounds like another instance of "because of the severity of a false positive, it's better to have a lot of false negatives". Somehow it's okay for police to slowly punch in each license plate they have, but not okay to automate it?
      • by gbulmash ( 688770 ) * <> on Monday July 30, 2007 @12:07AM (#20038239) Homepage Journal
        Actually, if I owned an office building that abutted a freeway, I could legally set up cameras and record the license plate numbers of every car that passed, and no one could do anything. I could even go and sell that information on the internet or charge people to search the database of license plates recorded. And no one could stop me (muahaha?).

        If you're out in a public place, overtly displaying identifiable information, there's no law saying I cannot record that. And let's face it, if you're a law abiding citizen, you're in more danger from the databases being kept by private credit reporting agencies than the ones being kept by law enforcement agencies.

        - Greg
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          You could set up such a camera in the USA. In many parts of Europe, it would be illegal. Even if you were allowed yo set up the camera in the first place, in Europe personal information is owned by that person, irrespective of who collects it. You would need the permission of everyone passing by to collect and store the information, and you would also need to provide a mechanism for people to find out what information you are storing on them and a mechanism for them to correct errors in the database. T

    • by Wavicle ( 181176 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @12:14AM (#20038301)
      You're out on the open road. You have no reasonable expectation of privacy. No civil right is being violated, IMO.

      The police have no legitimate interest in tracking the driving patterns of people who have not committed a crime and are not under suspicion of having committed a crime.

      This is the sort of database that is ripe for use for illegal and unconstitutional purposes:
      * Have you been making too many trips to the anti-war rally? Oh, sorry, we're going to have to deny you entrance to this political forum for, uh, 'security' reasons.
      * Oh, thank you for your job application... oh dear, it seems you were parked for a while at the planned parenthood, we don't hire your type.
    • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @12:33AM (#20038439)

      But claim that the police recording license plates on the open highway is unconstitutional? Can't side with you.
      I disagree. The fourth amendment states:

      The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

      I think that a surveillance system which magnifies normal abilities beyond anything humanly achievable must, by definition, raise questions of being an unreasonable search and seizure. If it is not reasonable to expect a person or an affordable group of people to achieve the same results, then it should be considered an unreasonable search.
  • Plates are openly displayed in a public place (roadways) and cops can (and have been for some time) easily run plates one at a time. The system just automates the process and unsettlingly keeps indefinite logs that can be mined for nefarious purposes and track our every move, but lately the courts haven't seemed to mind as long as they sell it as protecting families from perverts and drunks. My paranoia doesn't like this at all--they might start doing obnoxious things like pulling me over for no reason ot

  • Misleading summery (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TechwoIf ( 1004763 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @12:04AM (#20038209) Homepage
    It does not say if _all_ or just the ones that one on the "hit" list plates are "tagged" and recorded. I would object to this system IF it recored _all_ plates and locations. Recording just the ones that came back with warrants or stolen I have no problem with. And would disagree with the ACLU on this one.
    • by xsadar ( 627057 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @02:10AM (#20039121)

      I would object to this system IF it recored _all_ plates and locations. Recording just the ones that came back with warrants or stolen I have no problem with.

      Sorry. If you read the article to the very end you find this:

      Every plate being scanned won't be tossed away but stored for future use. Once a warrant is issued on a plate, officers can pull up the previously scanned data, using coordinates on a map to pinpoint the exact location and time of the car when it was identified.

      Kind of dumb that they put this information at the END of the article instead of in the headline. I thought there was not a problem until I got to the very end of the article. Still not sure it's illegal on technical grounds, but definitely not right for them to be tracking innocent people this way.
  • Problem? (Score:2, Insightful)

    I figure from the article that it looks for certain plates (stolen cars etc) and only the matches are being stored, not every plate scanned. At least, that would make sense, article doesn't really make it clear. If so, how is this different than a cop seeing a "wanted" licence plate on a car and recording the time and place where it was seen? He has to look at a lot of plates but he disregards those that don't match. If every single plate scanned is stored with GPS data then obviously its a different story
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 30, 2007 @12:13AM (#20038281)
    Last year my car was stolen. It happened a few days after some scumbag killed a cop and went on the lam, so the police had zero time for me (and I can't really blame them). If we'd had these gizmos then, they might have caught the piece of shit cunt that boosted my wheels.

    If I was a cop on the hot auto squad, I'd cross-correlate owners reporting stolen vehicles with ACLU members - and I'd shitcan their cases.
  • by feepness ( 543479 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @12:27AM (#20038395) Homepage
    And since this has always been publicly available... it is just information demanding to be released from it's bonds.
  • Thank You ACLU. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Irvu ( 248207 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @12:54AM (#20038625)
    This is one of those "boiling frog" issues that isn't very sexy or photogenic, one of the issues that many people will ignore but that sets a very very dangerous precedent. Yes the plates are state issued and yes they are intended to be viewable but the practice of indefinitely logging the plates of innocent people, just because, is wrong and must be stopped now. If allowed to run the precedent will be set for tracking credit card purchase federally, tagging and logging your presence in all public places and more.

    Yes they caught 111 felons but that could be done without logging the innocent people.

    I see this as another instance of IT vendors riding over the rights of citizens in their endless goal to make a buck.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by greg1104 ( 461138 )
      Yes they caught 111 felons but that could be done without logging the innocent people.

      What about the cases where the car passed by before it was in the database as stolen/owned by a felon? If you only stored the matches and threw away the rest of the data, you lose the ability to immediately act to capture someone the minute they enter the list. Think of the situation where someone commits a felony, then flees the area. By the time the crime is reported and they enter the database, they're long gone, but
  • by ghettoimp ( 876408 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @01:01AM (#20038693)
    A system like this sounds really useful for locating stolen cars and finding wanted criminals. It's a great idea in theory, and apparently it's effective. And if stealing a car becomes synonymous with getting caught, so much the better. But the lawsuit is also a good idea. There's no reason to build a database of "innocent" license plates. The government shouldn't be snooping on its citizens, and it's easy to imagine this information being abused. Maybe you trust this administration, but can you trust the next one, and the one after that?

    Well what's the big deal? So what if a government goon knows who my friends are, how often we hang out, which political meetings I attend, whether I attend narcotics anonymous meetings or see a psichiatrist, how often I buy liquor or go to sex shops, etc. I'm nobody important, just a working stiff like everyone else. And this is all small-potatoes stuff anyhow.

    But it's precisely because I'm nobody important that it isn't a big deal to me. I don't have to worry about retribution after I leak an important story about wrongdoing at my company or government agency to the media. I'm not a journalist trying to protect the confidentiality of my sources. I'm not a candidate running for office and having all my movements for the past thirty years scrutinized by the establishment party. I'm not an undercover officer or overzealous district attorney worried about being outed or targetted by the mob. These people do important work, and it's important to protect them.

    The best way to prevent the database from being abused is not to build it. You can still find criminals and stolen cars, and use the system to fight crime. But citizens who haven't done anything wrong shouldn't be tracked everywhere they go, since it might be used against them for political reasons.
  • by mosch ( 204 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @01:32AM (#20038895) Homepage
    I'm surprised by the way this system works.

    I implemented a system that does basically this, as custom development for a police department in a small American city. It's worked fantastically well, but they had a lot of specific restrictions.

    They didn't want fully automated scanning, because apparently it causes all sorts of legal troubles if you run some plates (undercovers, celebrities, people who are later stalked/attacked).

    Also, they didn't want to geotag the searches (even though all of the data was available) because they specifically didn't want to build a database of people's locations outside their duties.

    And lastly, they didn't want permanent data storage of *anything*. They wanted two years, to comply with various regulations and to allow time for investigation into abuses, but no more. After that, they wanted it gone forever.

    As such, I find it very surprising that a police department would even have interest in building a tool that is so incredibly ripe for abuse, when it is likely to open them to all sorts of litigation, as evidenced by the ACLU lawsuit.

    And as to the tools who claim the ACLU is just interested in freeing criminals, I'd remind you that the ACLU simply cares about rights, even though sometimes that's unpopular. They're willing to fight to let you quote the Bible in your yearbook [], to prevent 13 year olds from being arrested for writing on their desks [] and as this article notes, they are also against recorded surveillance of innocent drivers.

    It's telling that nearly all of the right-wingers in this thread have distorted the ACLU's actual complaint (that surveillance databases are being built against innocent drivers) and have replaced it with a claim that somehow the ACLU is against running plates altogether or direct claims that the ACLU is pro-criminal.
  • by rfugger ( 923317 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @01:48AM (#20038997) Homepage
    According to this announcement [], license plate data in BC is purged every three months. Yes, in Canada we do have privacy laws. It may not be perfect privacy, but at least it's a consideration when they roll out these programs. The Springdale cops should at the very least do the same.
  • by thepainter ( 1134709 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @02:51AM (#20039353)
    As for the scanning of license plates...

    The Supreme Court is clear in that this kind of observation by law enforcement doesn't constitute a search under the 4th Amendment. So you can't debate whether it is a reasonable or an unreasonable search as it never was a search to begin with.

    1) Is the person in a public place? Simple yes or no.
    2) Does the person have an expectation of privacy? For instance, a closed telephone booth is in a public place, but grants a person an expectation of privacy and law enforcement thus needs a warrant to record a conversation therein.

    If 1 is yes and 2 is no, then it falls under the plain sight (or plain view) doctrine. It is an exception to the warrant requirement, requires no probable cause or reasonable suspicion, and is not considered a search (of any kind) under the 4th Amendment.

    As for tracking/storing this data for long periods of time...

    If the police can legally obtain information, there is nothing stopping them from amassing it in a database under the 4th Amendment. Something that wasn't a search to begin with doesn't magically become a search because it is entered it in to a database. A ruling stating otherwise would be groundbreaking.

    However, the Court has ruled that you have a "right to privacy" under the 9th Amendment and some other numbers they pulled out of the butt of their number-gnome (since the Constitution doesn't explicitly say anything about privacy). So perhaps the Court will rule that the privacy of citizens outweighs the benefit to law enforcement in rearguards to warehousing this information.

    If I had to bet, I'd say the ACLU is going to lose. But nothing stops the people of Springdale, Ohio from expecting a higher level of privacy than the minimums set by the US Constitution. I've not been to Ohio, but I'm pretty sure they have local elections there too.
    • 2) Does the person have an expectation of privacy? For instance, a closed telephone booth is in a public place, but grants a person an expectation of privacy and law enforcement thus needs a warrant to record a conversation therein.

      The expectation of privacy is why it's illegal in Michigan (not sure if it's local or national) to use directional microphones to pick up conversations, even in public places, when there is no obvious listener within normal hearing range.

      DO ordinary citizens have an expectation t
  • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @03:28AM (#20039539) Homepage Journal
    Suppose I suspect my wife is having an affair, and I sue her for divorce. I can subpoena that license plate database to see where she's been, and who she's been visiting.

    Hey, wait -- she can do the same to me!
  • by QCompson ( 675963 ) on Monday July 30, 2007 @08:28AM (#20040989)
    There's a reason that many crimes in the US elicit such a harsh punishment, and that everything from bouncing a check to picking your nose in public is now a felony (ignoring the corporate-prison industry and other such arguments for the moment); the long prison sentences and exorbitant fines are thought to be a deterrent to other nare-do-wells who would now think twice before committing the same crime and getting the same sentence.

    But part of the deterrence theory of punishment is premised on the fact that law enforcement can't catch all the criminals. To make up for the fact that there will always be Joe Robber or Tina Car-Thief who gets away with something, the hope is that they will be deterred from breaking the law in fear of receiving the harsh punishment.

    The whole punishment-as-deterrent system will become quite warped however, when cops across the nation can cruise around scanning hundreds of license plates and arrest X number more felons than before. As law enforcement is armed with new technology, do the punishments ever decrease despite law enforcement being more effective in catching the bad guys?

    To take this thought to the extreme: if police suddenly developed new drug-detecting technology that could scan people's surrounding air-mass as they walked out in public and determine with certainty whether they were carrying illegal drugs, should we still retain the harsh sentences that many states do for simple drug possession?

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