The Virginia State Police (VSP) maintained a massive database of license plates that allowed them to pinpoint the locations of millions of cars on particular dates and times. Even more disturbing, the agency used automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) to collect information about political activities of law-abiding people. The VSP recorded the license plates of vehicles attending President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, as well as campaign rallies for Obama and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
(Documentation of this program, disclosed in response to an ACLU of Virginia public records request, can be found here.) These practices starkly illustrate the need for tight controls on government use of technology for surveillance purposes.
To be sure, there are legitimate law enforcement purposes for ALPR. Some law enforcement agencies maintain “hot lists” of vehicles that are stolen or that have been used in crimes. Data from ALPRs can be instantaneously checked against these lists to quickly locate suspect vehicles. The impact on privacy rights is minimal as long as information about license plates not on the hot list is disposed of promptly.
By creating and maintaining a database of millions of license plates and targeting political activity, the VSP crossed well over the line from legitimate law enforcement to oppressive surveillance. In the cases of the campaign rallies and the 2009 inauguration, the VSP collected personally identifying information on drivers solely because those drivers were heading to a political event. These drivers were not suspected of or connected to any crime — their only offense was practicing their First Amendment rights to speak freely and assemble peacefully.
Monitoring protests and political rallies will chill this fundamental form of expression. We must be able to participate in demonstrations and campaign events without fearing that our license plate will be scanned and stored by law enforcement. Surveillance or perceived surveillance of political events — especially if participation might be controversial — will make law-abiding people think twice before attending. This is a threat to democracy, and we are not the first to recognize that. Back in 2009, the police themselves beat us to this scoop — the International Association of Chiefs of Police explained that when it comes to license plate readers, “the risk is that individuals will become more cautious in the exercise of their protected rights of expression, protest, association, and political participation because they consider themselves under constant surveillance.”
Belatedly, the VSP asked Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli about the legality of its information-gathering practices. In a strong opinion, Cuccinelli explained that the use of ALPRs for “passive” collection of information violates Virginia’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Act. That is, law enforcement may use ALPRs to search for specific vehicles suspected of involvement in criminal activity, but it may not simply collect and save data on thousands of vehicles for which there is no grounds for suspicion.
Since the Attorney General’s opinion was issued, the VSP says that it has purged its license plate database and now disposes of such information within 24 hours of collection, unless it is relevant to a clearly defined criminal investigation. But, return of passive data collection should not be just a bad Attorney General opinion away — our lawmakers must act to clearly prohibit the VSP from resurrecting this surveillance in the future.
The VSP’s former use of ALPR data is just one of the ways government uses technology to obtain detailed information about the everyday lives of Americans, along with the National Security Agency’scollection of data on every phone call to or from the United States, or the increasing warrantless tracking of cell phone locations by law enforcement agencies. It is essential that Americans remain alert to these encroachments on liberty and demand that their legislators rein in the use of surveillance technology by local, state, and national government.
Boston police are spying on Americans, and storing thousands of license plates for “intelligence” purposes:
License plate readers are recording millions of vehicles across the U.S.
ACLU & the EFF file lawsuit over license plate scanners in California:
South Carolina police are conducting false drug searches on motorists:
Story originally appeared in the newsobserver:
Even as I stood on the side of Interstate 85 in Spartanburg, S.C., on Thursday night, surrounded by three cops and a dog, that was my first thought. I had been pulled over – nabbed, so to speak – while driving through the Palmetto State on my way to Atlanta in a rental car.
I knew I wasn’t speeding, so I wondered what creative reason the cop – oops, make that cops; two more drove up before he reached me – would give for stopping me.
Where are you going?
I didn’t have long to wait. The one who stopped me claimed I’d swerved. He asked me to step out of the car.
Him: Where are you going?
Me: I like Atlanta.
Him: What do you do for a living?
Me: I work.
Him: Do you mind if we search your car?
Me: Not without a search warrant, you can’t.
Him: Can I search you?
Me: Not without a search warrant, you can’t.
The deputy then asked if his dog could sniff around the outside of my car.
“Sure.” On the second go-round, the initially calm dog started wagging his tail and barking and then – Whoosh! – leaped like a jackrabbit through the open car window.
Oh Lord. That’s when I began worrying about the dog drooling on the crackers spread out on the front seat for easy access, as well as silently praying that whoever had rented the car prior to me had not left any narcotics in the ashtray or anywhere else.
The deputy explained that since the dog had gotten a “hit,” that gave them probable cause to search the car. Which they did. Thoroughly. While they were at it, they searched me, too, in ways that usually require the exchange of money or at least dinner.
Man, they searched compartments on the car that I didn’t even know existed. They pulled my clothes and toothbrush from the bag and went through them, too.
When the lady at the rental car agency had tried earlier that day to give me a red car, I rejected it precisely because I knew it would attract cops’ attention on the highway.
So did, it turned out, a brown car.
Turns out, also, that I got caught up in a law enforcement thunderstorm or, as Spartanburg County Chief Deputy William Parris told me when I called his office Monday, “That was Operation Rolling Thunder, a drug interdiction operation,” conducted by several law enforcement departments.
Don’t motorists have the right to refuse being searched? I asked Parris. “Well,” he said, “if I ask you if you want to be searched, then you can say ‘no.’ Now, if a canine indicates on your car or I see something in plain view, then I can search you without your consent. Then it can be considered that there’s reasonable belief that there’s something in the car.”
As a veteran of a hundred such stop-and-searches – give or take one or two – I know the routine, which is why I’m disappointed in what I did while they searched the Ford Edge (a decidedly undrug-dealerly car): I shoved my hands into my pockets. The deputy took exception to that move, even though he’d already searched me, and told me to take them out.
I apologized to him and chastised myself, because I know in some situations that could’ve been a fatal mistake.
After receiving a citation for failure to maintain my lane and being freed to go, I know I should’ve counted my blessings – I was still alive and not headed to the pokey. I should have hightailed it out of South Carolina as quickly as legally possible.
I could not, however, resist asking the deputy, who seemed like a pleasant enough sort, “Look. I know you’re just doing your job, but what was it about me that made you decide to search my car? Do I even look like what you think a drug dealer looks like?”
“Some of your answers,” he responded, “sent up a red flag.”
Oh yeah: what?
“When I asked you ‘What do you do for a living?’ you said ‘I work.’ That’s suspicious and evasive,” he replied.
Does anyone ever actually say, I wondered to myself, “I sling crack”?
The reasons I was evasive are: A. It was none of his darned business what I do, and B. Not everyone loves newspaper columnists the way you all do here in the Triangle. So I figured I’d keep it to myself.
You know that UNC study last week that showed black or Hispanic motorists are 77 times more likely to be searched after a traffic stop than white motorists? I hope they didn’t spend a whole bunch of money on that: Any dude I know who’s ever climbed behind the wheel could’ve told them that without analyzing 13.2 million traffic stops over 10 years.
Illegal SMOG checkpoints are being used by California police:
Republican Party of Iowa issues checkpoint tips to motorists:
Central Iowa police are planning “traffic safety checkpoints” in Polk county on Friday night. The Iowa GOP strongly urges you NOT to give in to any illegal searches of your car. Only comply by providing your license, registration and insurance if requested.
The Iowa GOP also reminds you that recording police officers, both with audio and video is completely LEGAL and has been upheld numerous times by numerous courts. Be sure to have an objective “witness” by recording your conversations with police.
So if you’re around Des Moines friday night and come across an unnecessary “random” police checkpoint, be sure to:
1. Record the conversation
2. Comply only with license, registration and insurance
3. Do not volunteer any additional information and do not permit a search of your vehicle for any reason.
4. Send the Iowa GOP any audio and video you have of your interactions with police.
“Authorities said vehicles will be systematically chosen by officers to enter the checkpoint. For example, it may be decided that every fifth vehicle will be directed to a station within the checkpoint.”