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License Plate Readers: An Invasion of Privacy?

Posted on in Criminal Defense

Wisconsin criminal defense attorney, Wisconsin defense lawyer, your rightsPolice departments in Wisconsin have access to a little-known piece of technology with some surprising implications for privacy. Some squad cars now have an automatic license plate reader (ALPR). The system catalogs every license plate it passes and records the position in a police database. The ALPR system has proven useful in apprehending some criminals, such as a copper theft ring, but it also raises serious privacy concerns since it logs data indiscriminately on both potential offenders and people without any criminal history, outstanding tickets, or outstanding warrants.

How the System Works

The system works by way of four cameras mounted to the squad car, each of which face different directions. The cameras independently photograph the other cars around the squad car, reading their license plates and storing the images. The images are stored in a database along with tags indicating the location the vehicle was spotted using an on-board GPS.

The system has the ability to read license plate numbers and check for any outstanding traffic violations or potential flags on the car's owner. If the system flags someone, then it sends an alert to the officer who can pull that car over. Officers can also use the location data the system stores to go back and look into past crimes. For instance, one example highlighted by one Wisconsin county sheriff's office was the busting of a copper theft ring by looking into whether there were any license plates logged near the different theft sites around the time of each theft. However, the ability to go back and look at past data like that also has unsettling privacy implications.

Privacy Concerns

Civil liberties and privacy groups such as the ACLU have raised concerns about the fact that these sorts of techniques are also tracking the movements of innocent citizens. The cameras work on any car the squad car passes, so it logs people on the road as well as people parked in shopping malls, going to church, or even in their own driveways. In many ways, the concerns about these ALPR systems are similar to the issues surrounding GPS tracking that the Supreme Court articulated in U.S. v. Jones, a 2012 case where the Court required a warrant before tracking a person's car via GPS. Part of the concern in that case related to the fact that technology is making it much easier to collect all of the information people disseminate about themselves. The police would not need a warrant to assign an officer to follow any given car around, but the ALPR system allows them to track many more people for a much lower cost.

The limits of police power are constantly changing as a result of new technologies. If you have been charged with a crime and think that your rights may have been violated, contact an experienced Milwaukee criminal defense attorney today.

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