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Automatic License Plate Readers: Infringement, or Instrument of Justice?

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By Stephen Owsinski

A police officer without technology to perform duties is equivalent to a farmer without a John Deere: can’t cultivate soil armed with tweezers any more than cops can abate crime and ensure safety without technology. Archaic practices of law enforcers trying to read and “run” a license plate are history.

Enter Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs). These nifty little electronic instruments are used by law enforcement to apprehend law-breakers. Sadly, ongoing anti-ALPR debates are fueled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which asserts this technology is invasive and serves no real purpose in the hands of police.

First, let’s examine the gist of how ALPRs function and how, specifically, law enforcement agencies use them to thwart crime.

Essentially, at speeds of up to 140-mph, ALPRs generate a full-color snapshot of a car and scan the vehicle’s license plate, comparing it with local, state and national databases which store auto registration information. Thousands of plates can be scanned in an hour, the results of which are produced in a millisecond. ALPRs cull “Vehicles of Interest” originated by law enforcement authorities and from motor vehicle registration repositories, detecting fugitives from justice, terrorists on the Watch List, vehicles listed in AMBER Alerts (child abductions), registered sex offenders (think schools and playgrounds), stolen automobiles, and any manner of traffic-related issues such as revoked driver’s licenses, expired registrations, or uninsured motorists.

Functionally, as the ALPR scans vehicle plates it generates a sound for each—a cha-click for every plate scan, and a siren blast for a “Hit” concerning criminality or traffic violation. Additionally, ALPRs alert officers subliminally: if the cruiser operator is clearly passing a car and is not hearing the ALPR’s sound effects, it is due to either a car without a license plate (illegal) or a vehicle with its plate obscured, engendering officer scrutiny. Without the ALPR on-board, a law enforcement officer may not physically observe such things, certainly not in massive quantity encountered in malls’ congested parking lots.

With infrared illumination features, ALPRs can also be used at night. Midnight-shift officers can rely on the device without straining their eyes deciphering plate details. The ALPR is an efficient and untiring partner.

Sounds exponentially instrumental in achieving justice via intelligence gathering, right?

Arguments against the use of ALPRs stem from mining of information, including motorists’ activities such as the location where one drove, the vehicle’s direction of travel, the date and time stamp of that visit, and retention of data. From a police perspective, such details can chronicle the whereabouts of any given suspect and be retrospectively incorporated to further investigations (think evidentiary, to refute a lying suspect, placing one at/near the crime scene). All others, frankly, are not even on the minds of police. From the position of the ACLU, this information amounts to invasion of privacy. Accusations of “snooping” abound. To burden oneself with intelligence-gathering without even remotely discerning how it is used for the common good defies reasoning.

According to the Covington, GA, police department regarding its ALPR use, “no identifying information is collected” unless ALPR “Hits” beckon law enforcement attention, for example, detection of stolen autos.

Legally, Courts have upheld the law enforcement practice of arbitrarily running license plates, in the legitimate interest of justice and without infringement. Before the advent of ALPRs, police manually checked plates to detect/recover stolen cars or drivers whose licenses were suspended or revoked. Nowadays, technology is the workhorse, freeing-up officers to observe pedestrian activity/behavior.

Endemically, vehicles involved in crimes are listed in police reports. Hence, “Vehicles of Interest” are detected by ALPRs, exponentially bolstering criminal case clearance rates.

The metropolis of Philadelphia and its police force employ ALPRs among its patrol fleet. Philly police boast vetting and netting 106 terrorists who were among those on the Terrorist Watch List correlated with associated vehicles. That is 106 imminent catastrophes pre-empted, thanks to ALPR technology!

With potential and pervasive terror cells in our midst—foreign and domestic—and absolute threats traversing our free society, the outcry of privacy invasion competes with increasing citizen demands for safety and security. Weighing the preponderance of peril may allay the mis-perception of government intrusion. By using ALPRs which cull billions of records, police are strategically searching for known criminals, not necessarily Joe Citizen out for a Sunday drive.

It is entirely conceivable that police are not sitting around sifting through ALPR records to see what shakes out. Logistically, that is preposterous. Police forces around the country are consistently understaffed, so ALPR-mined information (other than “Hits”) is essentially benign and therefore inconsequential.

Law enforcers intently surveilling any particular person are doing so with veritable reasoning to buttress an active investigation. The operative word is active; ALPR “Hits” stem from probable cause bases.

Mr. Hemanshu Nigam, a renowned security expert and former federal prosecutor, pits the phenomenal benefits of ALPRs against privacy-invasion assertions. In a 2013 Huffington Post article, Nigam intimated: “…would we have a defendable reason to give to a mother of an abducted child whose child could be recovered using LPR if we chose not to use such a life-saving technology?” Indeed, an unequivocal assessment.

Compels one to wonder if an abducted child’s parents were among the naysayers, would ALPRs be viewed in a different light. Nabbing criminals by using ALPR technology is the rule in law enforcement, not the exception.

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit.  He is currently a researcher and writer.

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