Putting license plate readers to the constitutional test

By Kathryn Watson (File photo)

The widespread use of automatic license plate reader technology by local police departments is not only unsettling — it’s unconstitutional, one civil liberties advocate argues.

“One problem is it bypasses the Fourth Amendment,” said John Whitehead, president of the Charlottesville-based, civil-liberties-focused Rutherford Institute.

Automatic license plate readers can capture the date, time and exact location of a vehicle — for up to 1,800 vehicles per minute. That data goes to a central database that can match DMV records and other locations where that license plate was also captured on camera.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, requiring a warrant. It’s the same argument used against the National Security Agency spy program.

“The Fourth Amendment is really clear that you’re supposed to have probable cause before you do that,” Whitehead said.

The Fourth Amendment isn’t the only amendment right that ALPRs threaten, Whitehead said. The technology might make people uncomfortable to exercise their First Amendment rights if license plate information is collected at political rallies, for example.

It doesn’t help quell fears the Virginia State Police captured license plate images of people at political events for Sarah Palin and President Barack Obama. Such surveillance could trouble a private citizen who needs to see a psychiatrist, or a politician with an alcohol problem who wants to seek help, Whitehead said.

“It could be used against you later,” Whitehead said.

ALPR use stretches far beyond the Old Dominion’s borders. In a national survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, 71 percent of police agencies reported using license plate reader technology, while 85 percent said they planned to increase their usage of it.

Police argue ALPRs help solve crimes, and they have. Still, the percentage of serious crimes per scanned licenses is low. For every million licenses scanned in neighboring Maryland, only 47 were potentially associated with serious crimes, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“You’re doing surveillance of innocent citizens,” Whitehead said.

The use of ALPR technology is just one aspect of what Whitehead calls the “police state.” That’s what his new book — “A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State” — is all about.

Changing the status quo requires a riled-up grassroots effort that starts at the local level, and expands to government at all levels, he said.

“Go to your local city council, argue for them to ask for a resolution asking their local congressman to get their act together and follow the Fourth Amendment,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead said state lawmakers can intervene in the surveillance system, and an appetite for data privacy seems to be growing within the General Assembly.

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org, and can be reached at kwatson@watchdog.org, or on Twitter @kathrynw5.

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