March 23, 2014
A REVEALING LOOK INTO AN OFFICIAL WORLDVIEW: Los Angeles Cops Argue All Cars in L.A. Are Under Investigation.
Do you drive a car in the greater Los Angeles Metropolitan area? According to the L.A. Police Department and L.A. Sheriff’s Department, your car is part of a vast criminal investigation.
The agencies took a novel approach in the briefs they filed in EFF and the ACLU of Southern California’s California Public Records Act lawsuit seeking a week’s worth of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) data. They have argued that “All [license plate] data is investigatory.” The fact that it may never be associated with a specific crime doesn’t matter.
This argument is completely counter to our criminal justice system, in which we assume law enforcement will not conduct an investigation unless there are some indicia of criminal activity. In fact, the Fourth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution exactly to prevent law enforcement from conducting mass, suspicionless investigations under “general warrants” that targeted no specific person or place and never expired.
ALPR systems operate in just this way. The cameras are not triggered by any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing; instead, they automatically and indiscriminately photograph all license plates (and cars) that come into view. This happens without an officer targeting a specific vehicle and without any level of criminal suspicion. The ALPR system immediately extracts the key data from the image—the plate number and time, date and location where it was captured—and runs that data against various hotlists. At the instant the plate is photographed not even the computer system itself—let alone the officer in the squad car—knows whether the plate is linked to criminal activity.
Taken to an extreme, the agencies’ arguments would allow law enforcement to conduct around-the-clock surveillance on every aspect of our lives and store those records indefinitely on the off-chance they may aid in solving a crime at some previously undetermined date in the future.
Well, that’s the dream.