The high-tech cameras can capture up to 60 license plates a second, in total darkness, across four lanes of traffic, and at speeds up to 150 mph.
Law enforcement groups say that automated license plate readers allow police to immediately identify stolen vehicles and even find missing people.
But privacy advocates say the images, which in most states can be held indefinitely, are a potential tool of mass surveillance that could allow the government to track our every move. And they say the concerns are not just hypothetical.
In Washington, D.C., for example, an officer pleaded guilty to extortion for using one to vacuum up the plates of cars near a gay bar — and blackmail their owners. In New York, police have used them to record plates of worshipers at mosques. And in 2015, the Los Angeles Police proposed sending letters to the home addresses of all vehicles that enter high prostitution areas.
Now, for the first time, the Kentucky Supreme Court will consider whether information derived from plate readers can be used to make traffic stops.
In a case to be argued Wednesday, Gregory Traft of Burlington contends he was unlawfully stopped and arrested after his plate was swept up by a reader in a police cruiser driven by a Boone County deputy sheriff.
On Sept. 11, 2012, at about 2:20 a.m, Deputy Adam Schepis was heading in the opposite direction on U.S. 42 when his reader automatically photographed the plate on Traft’s Toyota Tacoma pickup, according to court records.
The reader — connected to a database of stolen vehicles — did not identify the truck as stolen. Traft says that should have ended things right there.
But Schepis used his laptop to look up the truck’s owner and found Traft had a warrant for failing to appear on a misdemeanor charge of writing a bad check.
The deputy followed him for a mile and observed no traffic infractions. Without any belief that a crime was afoot — and not even knowing whether Traft was driving the truck — Schepis, who has since left the department, pulled Traft over, gave him a field sobriety test and charged him with drunken driving.
Traft pleaded guilty on the condition that he be allowed to challenge a judge’s refusal to suppress his arrest. In a brief, his lawyer, Steven Megerle, charges that the deputy violated his client’s privacy and illegally stopped him while he was legally operating a vehicle.
In what he calls an “important 21st-century search and seizure issue,” he argues that police don’t have an unfettered right to stop a law-abiding motorist to ask for identification and that traffic stops must be supported by an “articulate, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”
By targeting Traft through the license plate reader, the sheriff’s department circumvented those rights, Megerle says.
“This case is not a close call,” he said.
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But the commonwealth says those arguments are ridiculous and that Megerle and his client have succumbed to “Orwellian paranoia.”
Special Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Wright-Hatfield says the use of plate readers is a common law enforcement tool in recovering stolen vehicles and that it’s not uncommon for officers to take the further step of running a vehicle’s registration to check on its owner.
In her brief, she says that since it is natural to infer that the driver of a vehicle is the registered owner — and the registered owner had an outstanding warrant — the deputy “had reasonable and articulable suspicion” to stop his vehicle.
Besides, she said, “no argument can be made that a motorist seeks to keep the information on his license plate private” because the “very purpose of a license plate number … is to provide identifying information to law enforcement officials and others.”
Further, she says, “a fugitive is always eligible for apprehension and has no expectation of privacy solely because the underlying charge was a misdemeanor. The victims of misdemeanors are no less important than victims of felonies.”
Megerle said Traft failed to appear on a theft charge for writing a bad check under $100.
The Court of Appeals ruled against Traft, but the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. It usually rules on cases within a few months of hearing arguments.
The use of automated license plate readers is widespread. A survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found about 71 percent all U.S. police departments use some form of the devices.
Spokesmen for Kentucky State Police and Louisville Metro Police wouldn’t immediately say how many their departments use, although responding in 2012 to an open records request from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, each reported owning two of them. The Boone County Sheriff’s Office has six, said Maj. Tom Scheben, its spokesman.
Lexington Police had one, but spokeswoman Brenna Angle said it no longer uses it because the frequently required software updates were too expensive and the department didn’t have much success with “making cases with the device.”
The Louisville department’s rules say the devices can be used to identify stolen plates, to conduct undercover operations and to locate stolen or wanted vehicles or missing and wanted persons.
The regulations say the images aren’t available for public review but don’t specific how long the images may be retained.
In Maine, the records may be kept only for 21 days and in Vermont 18 months. Kentucky has no law on retention, and a bill to restrict it in Indiana died in committee in 2015 without a hearing.
The sponsor of the Indiana bill, Sen. Jim Smith of Clarksville, said at the time that he wanted to put “guardrails” on the equipment.
“If there are no guidelines,” he asked, “How do we know it is not being abused?”
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