Do License Plate Readers Let Police Violate Your Privacy Rights?

Many may be unaware of Oklahoma City acquiring 65 AI-powered automatic license plate reader (ALPR) cameras for use in locations throughout the metro. City police officials and the company that produces them portray the cameras as the latest tool for fighting crime.

I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it seems plausible that public statements about the devices being used only to track vehicles and not people are merely an effort to deflect concerns about ALPRs potentially creating a massive surveillance network in our great state.

Contrary to what police and the company state publicly, APLR cameras create serious concerns regarding individual privacy rights under the United States Constitution. To help you better understand the reason for worries about license plate readers tracking the movements of the average motorist, let’s take a closer look at what they do and how the use of the information they gather violates your rights.

What are APLR cameras, and how do they collect information?

Based on news reports regarding the APLR cameras in Oklahoma City, 65 devices will be installed throughout the metro in addition to the 25 cameras already in use. The cameras take a picture of the license plate of every vehicle that passes.

The ALPR system compares the plate number to databases containing lists created by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies identifying plates associated with vehicles wanted in connection with criminal activity. Police officers alerted by the system regarding a vehicle with a plate matching one in the database can then take enforcement action to seize the vehicle and the driver and see where the situation progresses from there.

What privacy issues arise with their use?

When people register their cars, their name and other personal information on file with the state becomes associated with the plate affixed to their vehicle. Consequently, tracking the movements of the car lets police track the activities of its driver.

Do APLR systems violate a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy? Police and government officials in Oklahoma City and other municipalities using ALPR cameras nationwide would say they do not.

A 2012 decision from the United States Supreme Court offers a contrary view, though.

There, the Court addressed law enforcement using a GPS tracking device affixed to a vehicle driven by someone police suspected of drug trafficking. Police obtained a search warrant from a judge that specified the device be attached to the vehicle while it was in the District of Columbia. Instead, officers waited until it was outside of the District before attaching the device.

The Court determined that police violated the search warrant's terms, so whatever tracking information they obtained from the device resulted from a warrantless search and violated the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. The government argued that a warrant was unnecessary because no expectation of privacy existed in tracking data collected while the vehicle operated on public roads. Still, the Court disagreed, ruling that the use of a device to track the movements of a person’s vehicle was a search subject to the privacy protections of the Fourth Amendment.

Other decisions from the High Court reached similar conclusions about the collection of information by law enforcement when used to track a person’s movements or location using cell-site data. As such, a search warrant based on probable cause is required to gather cellphone information to track a person’s daily activity using cell-site locations.

What does the future hold for ALPR?

Collecting license plate information that allows law enforcement to trace the movements of motorists raises the same privacy issues previously found in violation of the Fourth Amendment. It should not be long before the Oklahoma City ALPR system comes up against a similar challenge filed by a criminal defense attorney representing someone charged with a crime based on data collected by the system.

Only time will tell how any such litigation will play out in state court and whether the issue will have to be appealed further in hopes that the law of the land is upheld.

Safe travels, friends.

Don't miss these stories: