License Plate Reading Cameras Gain Legal Backing
License Plate Reading Cameras Gain Legal Backing
NEW YORK TIMES
By AL BAKER
April 14, 2011
Last year, as the police in New York were ramping up their reliance on license plate reading cameras as a new crime-fighting tool, a Manhattan judge affirmed their use as lawful and valuable in taking guns off the streets of the Bronx.
In a decision from April 2010, acting Supreme Court Justice Analisa J. Torres held that the use of the cameras did not violate a defendant‟s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. The defendant, Luis Davila Jr., had sought to have the court invalidate the seizure of a firearm in December 2008 by officers who stopped the car he was riding in.
The license plate technology was at the heart of the matter: It was what prompted Officer Jesse Turner and Sgt. John White to stop the four-door BMW with Mr. Davila as a passenger as they approached the car on Story Avenue, in the Soundview neighborhood.
As they passed, a laptop computer mounted between the officers‟ seats — and connected to the cameras affixed to the car‟s trunk — began sounding an alarm, indicating that the BMW‟s registration had expired.
The court decision, in addition to upholding the reliance on the technology, shed light on the science that powers the cameras, which are increasingly deployed by police departments around the country, from California to Minnesota to Pennsylvania.
The image-processing technology involved, according to the decision, is known as the Mobile Plate Hunter system, which was developed by the Elsag company. The system‟s cameras photograph license plates at the rate of hundreds per minute and then convert those images to data — letters and numbers — that are sent to a computer in the vehicle‟s trunk. The computer then compares the data to a so-called “hot list” of information on such things as stolen vehicles and other violations.
In the Bronx case, when the officers heard the alarm, Officer Turner made a U-turn and followed the BMW‟s driver, Angelica Genao, for a few blocks before stopping her.
After the officers asked Ms. Genao and Mr. Davila to exit the car, Mr. Davila was said to have whispered into Officer Turner‟s ear that the bulge under his clothing was “a piece,” “a gun,” the court summary said.
Later, at the 43rd Precinct station house, Ms. Genao was issued a summons, after her license-plate data was checked against the New York State Police Information Network database. Mr. Davila, meanwhile, told a detective (and provided a three-page written statement) that he had taken the gun from a man named Luis Pena after Mr. Pena had tried to use it against him, and fled with it in the car while trying to decide what to do with the weapon.
Mr. Davila was charged with criminal possession of a stolen weapon, but he later moved to suppress the firearm and his statements, on the grounds that they were the fruit of an unlawful stop and arrest.
The defendant argued that the car stop should be invalidated because the police had not followed a two-step protocol, set forth in department guidelines, for the use of the license-plate reading cameras. Those guidelines, issued in 2007, call for officers to ensure that the “hot list” has been updated within 24 hours prior to use, and 5 check any license plate reader information against the police database on a patrol car‟s laptop before initiating enforcement action.
Officer Turner, a four-year veteran, did not verify that the hot list in his cruiser had been updated within 24 hours, and neither he nor Sergeant White checked the plate reader information against the database while following Ms. Genao, the court case said.
Justice Torres, however, found the officers acted properly and denied the defendant‟s motion.
“Although the N.Y.P.D. guidelines may reflect ideal practices, they constitute recommendations, not the law,” the decision said. “Turner reasonably relied on the plate reader hot list. Moreover, the plate reader database was hardly ‟stale,‟ as defendant suggests; the hot list had been updated a mere 36 hours before the stop and accurately reported the status of Genao‟s vehicle.”
Asked what could be taken away from the judge‟s decision, Paul J. Browne, the Police Department‟s chief spokesman, summed it up succinctly.
“Friends don‟t let friends drive armed,” Mr. Browne said.
Christopher T. Dunn, of the New York Civil Liberties Union said the ruling showed there were “few limits on the ability of the police to collect license plate information.” He added: “Because of this, it becomes particularly important that there be restrictions on how the N.Y.P.D. uses and keeps this information, which will allow the police to track the movement and whereabouts of hundreds of thousands of law-abiding people as the license plate database grows.”
Al Baker, police bureau chief for The New York Times — and the son of a police lieutenant — brings you inside the nation‟s largest police force every Thursday. Mr. Baker can be reached at OnePolicePlaza@nytimes.com.