Answers to “You Decide” Boxes
Suggested answers to “You Decide” boxes in the text provide a well-researched rationale behind the recommended response to key issues facing the law enforcement profession.
Law enforcement agencies across the country are incorporating the use of automated license plate recognition (ALPR) technologies to improve their enforcement and investigative abilities, expedite the identification of stolen or otherwise wanted vehicles, and broaden their collection of other relevant data. As described within this exercise, ALPRs automatically, within a matter of seconds, capture images of a vehicle’s license plate, transform that image into alphanumeric characters, compare the plate number to those contained within one or more databases, and alert an officer when a stolen, wanted, or other vehicle of interest has been detected. Albeit less frequently, some ALPRs also have surveillance capabilities. Meanwhile, the image and information are typically linked to a specific individual through motor vehicle databases, thereby creating records that, many argue, contain substantial details about citizens’ daily activities when in their vehicles. This information is, in turn, stored on a server. On the one hand, this information can assist law enforcement in a variety of investigative operations. On the other hand, ALPRs have raised a number of concerns regarding privacy and police legitimacy.
Police agencies and professional organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), typically tout ALPRs as a significant technological and investigative and data collection tool (International Association of Chiefs of Police, n.d.). Lawful uses of ALPR technology can include the following:
- Locating wanted or stolen vehicles
- Locating suspects, witnesses, or victims for criminal investigation purposes
- Locating missing children or elderly persons
- Protection of the public during special events such as large protests, etc.
- Protection of critical infrastructure
These activities can certainly appear to be important components of the law enforcement function, ones that are necessary for the police to quickly and effectively solve crime and protect the public. Why, then, might such a helpful piece of technology potentially have a downside?
Although the information collected using ALPRs can enhance law enforcement’s ability to investigate and enforce the law, there are also concerns that the information collected may potentially be inaccurate, placed into databases and shared with third parties without restrictions on use, retained in police databases longer than necessary, or used in ways that may infringe on individuals’ privacy. Professional organizations such as the IACP acknowledge that these concerns are worthy of consideration and advocate strongly for the proper deployment and careful management of the technology in order to ensure effective operations that recognize and respect citizens’ privacy interests, civil rights, and civil liberties (International Association of Chiefs of Police, n.d.).
As with many other forms of law enforcement technology, privacy concerns over ALPRs have become one of the more significant cons, sparking new legislation. The question of privacy, including potential 4th Amendment violations, is a complex one. Although litigation surrounding ALPRs is still relatively new, initial court decisions have held that the practice is generally lawful as there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a license plate. Additionally, some ALPR companies have successfully challenged a state law that would have prohibited private use of ALPRs, arguing that the law violated the companies’ 1st Amendment right to collect plate numbers and distribute them to their clients. Although there is no broad-based federal regulation addressing this technology, 16 states have chosen to regulate the use of ALPR systems or their data and retention practices, and 11 states currently have pending ALPR legislation (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2018).
Although it is unlikely that law enforcement agencies will stop utilizing ALPR technology simply due to regulation, given its positive potential, it is also clear that an appropriate balance between protecting public safety and citizens’ civil rights and liberties is imperative. Establishing a balance of proper implementation, departmental policy, legal mandates, and accountability to the public will help ensure public trust and legitimacy and hopefully avoid scenarios of misuse like the one outlined in this exercise.
International Association of Chiefs of Police. (n.d.). Automated license plate recognition. Retrieved from https://www.theiacp.org/projects/automated-license-plate-recognition
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2018). Automated license plate readers: State statutes. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/telecommunications-and-information-technology/state-statutes-regulating-the-use-of-automated-license-plate-readers-alpr-or-alpr-data.aspx
Newell, B. C. (2014). Local law enforcement jumps on the big data bandwagon: Automated license plate recognition systems, information privacy, and access to government information. Maine Law Review, 66(2), 397–435.