Law Enforcement Tracks Your Movement?

By Lexi Gonzales*

As technology evolves, a need for interpretation of our constitution arises in new ways. Across the country, law enforcement has been adopting new technology to help improve their work. One of these technologies are License Plate Readers systems (LPRs).

LPRs have the ability to capture images of license plates using high-powered video cameras and software that interprets those images. The systems are synced to a database that authorities use to catch speeders, search for stolen cars, and track down fugitives. In the tracking of the Boston Marathon bombers, LPRs were used to locate Dzokhar Tsarnaev. The database formed from LPRs give authorities the ability to track every place a particular vehicle has been. Police used the data to establish where the Tsarnaev brothers traveled and where they might be headed, based on previous data. LPRs are about the size of a book and can be placed in a number of places such as police cars, road signs and/or traffic lights. Police were able to locate Dzokhar Tsarnaev hiding in a boat in a resident’s backyard.

LPRs have been very useful to law enforcement, but has brought up the question: do LPRs violate privacy rights?

In 2012, the Supreme Court established, in U.S. v. Jones, that the attachment of a GPS tracking device to a vehicle and the use of that device to monitor a vehicle’s movements on public streets constitutes a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.” Supreme Court Justice Scalia argued that one’s car is a personal “effect” and that the government’s physical intrusion would be clearly concerned a search.

Citing this case, Brian Hauss, a member of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Projects, writes in Victor Li’s article, “The Supreme Court held that you have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your movements over a period of time. The ability to track a person’s movements over a period of time triggers the Fourth Amendment whether it’s through GPS, cellphone data or license plate reader.”

One of the largest LPR manufactures, Vigilant Solution, argues that the use of LPRs is protected under the First Amendment, saying that one has the right to gather data that is in the public sphere.

Currently in the United States, only five states have put a limit on the use of license plate readers with several other states debating on a limit. New Hampshire has forbidden the use of LPRs in police and private companies with the exception of the tolling company EZ Pass, Utah requires that data to be deleted after nine months, and Vermont limits it to 18 months, Maine limits it is 3 weeks. In Arkansas, the police are required to clear out plate numbers after 150 days and the only private companies allowed to use LPRs are parking facilities.

The debate on license plate readers are ongoing. Follow our blog for updates.

If you have any questions about laws or cases, set up an appointment with Student Legal and Mediation Services by stopping by LSC 330, calling us at (936) 294-1717, emailing us at slms@shsu.edu, or visiting us online.

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