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License reader lawsuit can be heard, appeals court rules

Jaikumar Vijayan | May 15, 2014
A federal appeals court this week ruled that a woman's Fourth Amendment rights may have been violated when San Francisco police arrested her after an automated license plate reader mistakenly identified her car as stolen.

At the time of the incident, SFPD had no rules stating who was responsible for verifying the physical license numbers in ALPR hits, not "the camera car operator or with the officer conducting the subsequent stop," the opinion read.

Police departments across the country are now using automated license plate readers in increasing numbers to track stolen vehicles and those associated with active investigations. In many cases there are few, if any, policies regarding the use of LPRs and the data collected by the devices.

Privacy advocates have expressed concerns that the data collected by the devices gives police the ability to monitor an individual's movements in intrusive detail. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have noted that many police departments already have massive databases of information gathered by ALPRs with no guidelines or transparency regarding use of the data.

"Using tools like license plate readers and pre-crime 'intelligence-led' policing algorithms, police officers are relying more and more on computers to tell them who is dangerous, who is wanted for crimes, and who is suspect," the American Civil Liberties Union" said in a blog post responding to the Ninth Circuit decision.

"While police offices can make mistakes on their own, without a helping hand from malfunctioning technological systems, the buck must stop with the officers in the flesh," the ACLU said.


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