I Think A Police Robot Just Scanned My License Plate!

If the police in Chicago or elsewhere want to ask you some questions, pull your car over or search your home, they’re going to need either a reasonable suspicion or what is called “probable cause” (depending on the circumstances) in order to do so. That’s because the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures involving their homes, cars and personal effects. This constitutional protection requires police to have a reasonable suspicion or reasonable grounds (which are good, articulable reasons known as Probable Cause) in order to invade a citizen’s privacy in this way. So, when the police search or seize persons or property without the underlying legal requirements, an experienced criminal attorney can often file a motion to suppress the evidence in court and get a judge to throw out whatever evidence (drugs, guns, etc) were illegally collected by the police.

But as described below, it’s different when police run your license plates. Not only are police allowed to do it without having a good reason, but new technology allows the capture of such information even when there’s no police officer present. Read on…

Isn’t Running My License Plate Without a Valid Reason an Illegal Search?

As long as the police are not running your license plate for a discriminatory reason (such as because of your age, race, national origin, sexual orientation or identity), the short answer is that it isn’t illegal. They can run your plates all day, every day for no reason whatsoever, as long as they don’t pull you over in order to do it. That’s because license plates are issued by the state of Illinois and as such, they’re not really your property even though you pay for the privilege of displaying them on your car and even though you have to pay fees each year to keep them valid. If the State of Illinois wants them back because they believe you violated their terms of use in some way, you have to give them back. So, they’re not like other kinds of “property” in that sense.

The reason that license plates exist is not merely to generate fees (although that’s obviously a very big reason here in Illinois). It’s also so that the police can identify which cars commit crimes or traffic violations and to help determine whether the drivers of those cars are even licensed to drive in the first place. As such, plates need to be posted in the correct location and in an unobstructed manner so that the police can view them. As a matter of fact, a failure to have properly affixed plates is a crime in and of itself.

Bu then how is a license plate different from a driver’s license? They’re both issued by the state, are technically the property of the state, and can be recalled by the Illinois Secretary of State for good reason. And it’s not legal for the Chicago Police (or any other department) to just stop you and demand that you produce your driver’s license without a valid reason. So then, why can the police just run your license plates basically any time that they feel like it?

According to Illinois courts, the reason is that running your license plate is considered neither a search nor a seizure, so the same constitutional protections don’t apply. You don’t generally even know when the police are doing it. It may happen to you a dozen times during the day or zero times, because it doesn’t prolong your day even for a second or make you momentarily stop what you’re doing for it to occur. That is one of the main reasons that running your plate isn’t considered to be an illegal search.

Police Use New Technology to Keep an Eye on You

So, if police don’t need a good reason to check out your license plate, why do they need actual police officers to do it anyway? Well, it turns out that they really don’t anymore. With new technologies have come new opportunities for police to monitor citizens. Electronic monitoring devices, Breath Alcohol Devices, Police Bodycams and Spotshotter crime predictive software are just a few of the many new ways in which police can keep an eye on citizens through the use of technology. Although they’ve been around for a number of years, Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) were designed specifically for this purpose and have become much more common in Chicago and across Illinois recently.

Buckle Up and Hold on To Your Civil Rights! It’s Going to Get Bumpy!

Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) are computer operated, high speed camera systems that can be attached to police cars or mounted on streetlights, poles, mobile police trailers or highway overpasses. They use optical recognition software to capture and interpret the license plate numbers of vehicles and then match up the plate number with the Illinois Secretary of State database information, in order to determine whether the vehicle is being legally operated, and who the licensed owners of the vehicle are. Once it’s determined who the owners are, the police can then check the drivers’ license records of such owners to determine whether that person is legally entitled to drive, whether they have active arrest warrants, and what their criminal history and cautions may be. So, in essence, these readers can provide a great deal of private information to police from just a single optical scan of a license plate. There are basically two kinds of ALPRs:

  • Stationary ALPRs: These are cameras that are mounted on stationary objects like poles or overpasses. They capture only the vehicles that travel past the camera. But when multiple cameras are positioned along an Illinois Highway or a major street in Chicago, the cameras can determine what speed and what direction the car is travelling.
  • Mobile ALPRs: Most often attached to the top of Chicago Police cars (and other police department vehicles), these devices allow the police to passively capture license plate data as they drive around on their shifts. They can capture moving vehicles as well parked vehicles, often capturing thousands of license plates in a day. In some cities, there are even private companies with ALPRs that capture this type of data and then sell it to police departments as well. The companies may also sell software that makes the sharing of data between different police departments possible.

Serious Privacy Concerns in Chicago Area

For the most part, people in Chicago and across Illinois are in favor of almost anything that legally helps police fight crime and protect our property. For years, “blue light cameras” have been posted high up on poles and streetlights in Chicago to help police in high-crime areas of the city. --And people generally understand that there is a need to identify which cars fail to pay tolls on the highway, so Automatic License Plate Readers are necessary to do that. ALPRs are also sometimes mounted to mobile “boot” vehicles that travel around Chicago looking for cars that have too many unpaid parking tickets, so they can be “booted”. Most citizens also recognize that ALPRs can be a good thing when they identify stolen cars or identify violent criminals with outstanding warrants.

But that’s about the extent of most citizen’s tolerance for this type of electronic surveillance. The big problem is that Illinois and many other states have no real legal guardrails in place to prevent abuse of these technologies. So, even though the Illinois State Police, the City of Chicago, and other municipalities say that the technology won’t be abused in the future, there really aren’t any strict laws that force them to comply. Back in 2015, the Illinois legislature tried to pass a law to regulate these cameras, but it didn’t pass. Some of the potential ways that Automatic License Plate Readers can be abused include:

  • Tracking Your Travel History: Multiple ALPRs are being installed along highways and major roads in Illinois as we speak. The intention is that these can help identify Amber Alert vehicles, recover endangered children, and identify violent criminals responsible for the recent plague of gun shootings on Chicago expressways. All good things. But the problem is that this data may be kept for many years and when multiple cameras are installed, it’s also easy for computer software to coordinate this data. When that happens, it can show exactly where your car has travelled, not just today, but over the past few years. It can show if you went to a bar, how long you stayed, if you met someone in a motel, if you went to a political protest, or visited a psychiatrist.
  • Tracking Your Speed: When Automatic License Plate Readers are connected in series as explained above, police can also use software to determine how fast you travelled on the highway. They can use a mathematical formula that compares the distance travelled between two cameras with the time it took for you to travel between these two cameras, in order to arrive at your average speed. Cameras such as those already installed at iPass locations can already be used for this purpose, although they presently are not.

Talk to Our Experienced Criminal / Traffic Legal Team

Crime-fighting technology can be a good thing. It can help keep us safe, secure, and protected from those who wish to do us harm. But our elected officials both in Chicago and Springfield need to step up and pass legislation to prevent misuse and abuse of these technologies before things get out of hand. Without such laws, our civil liberties and privacy may be in danger. Contact Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC at (800) 996-4824 for a free consultation about your criminal and traffic concerns today.