Tuesday, January 28, 2014

License plate readers fail to accomplish crime fighting goals

Civil libertarians have expressed serious privacy concerns related to the widespread use of license plate readers by law enforcement, but an equally strong argument against may be that they simply fail to accomplish their goals and aren't worth the bang for the buck.

With the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee charged with evaluating the collection of geolocational data by government this year as part of their interim charges (pdf), I was interested to see that CrimeSolutions.gov - a federally sponsored site which provides evidence-based evaluations of crime-fighting strategies - lists license plate reader technology as a tactic which has "no effect" on crime.

Studies have found neither general nor specific crime deterrent effects from deployment of license plate readers and only a slight increase in recovery of stolen vehicles. There was a short-term spike effect on vehicle thefts when police used manual license plate readers as opposed to the stationary ones installed on the side of the road, but "the effect faded over time."

Given those results, it's hard to justify government spending on license plate readers given that "The cost of the license plate recognition (LPR) technology is approximately $20,000-25,000 per unit."


Anonymous said...

I had a client who bought a vehicle from a person that he did not know was a registered sex offender. He was stopped by an officer who used this plate reading technology, before the state's data on the transfer was entered in the system. The stop was illegal in the first place and the officer attempted to hang a DWI charge on my client who had nothing to drink and was not on any meds except anti rejection drugs for a kidney transplant. My client quickly had his case dismissed by the DA, had no previous arrests and yet lost his commercial license and his job because he called the officer out on his reason for the stop after he learned my client was not who he thought he was. He refused to do any testing, because the officer was lying to him and the camera. He lost his ALR hearing to a lying cop. Even if the officer had gotten the right guy, he had no reason to stop him. He just wanted to hassle someone whom he thought was a sex offender. No, I don't care too much for the way these devices are being used by law enforcement.

Jardinero1 said...

I agree that license plates infringe on privacy, but the privacy issues stem from the license plate itself, not from any particular technology used to read it. You forfeit your privacy the moment you bolt the plate to your car. Anyone with access to the TxDMV database can read you plate with their own eyes and find out who you are.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

True enough, Jardinero1, as far as it goes. But scanning license plates en masse and using computers to check up to 5,000 plates per minute against far-away databases is a different breed of cat. Similarly, police can surveil anyone on the street but are limited by resources. Removing those limits through technology allows mass surveillance on a scale that does raise privacy problems, as the Alito and Sotomayor concurrences both argued in US v. Jones.

kherbert said...

I live in Harris County. 3 years ago, I paid for my registration at Kroger, somthing allowed in Harris County.

A little less than 2 weeks into the next month I was pulled over in Fort Bend County by a Richmond Police officer. When I asked him what was wrong, he said my car wasn't registered. I pointed to the sticker clearly on my windshield. Then I gave him the paperwork and insurance card.

He came back clearly confused, saying I wasn't in the state computer as registered, even though I clearly was.

I contacted Harris County only to be told there was a 45 DAY backlog on entering the information from the grocery stores into the state computer. I spent better part of 2 months being pulled over a couple times a week because a police car behind me scanned the plates and it came up as unregistered.

I'm a teacher and the cops near my school simply passed the word that my car was registered. The Kroger Manager had his people start warning people to keep all the paperwork receipts in their car. (2x I was basically accused of forging the sticker)

I'm lucky that I'm a teacher and my registration is due during summer break. I go to the courthouse now.

Anonymous said...


Your premise is false. Even though your license plate is "public," a lay person cannot glean any additional information attached to that plate.

The DMV database that you refer to is not a public free access database. You, as a citizen, cannot freely access the records of another person without "validating" the reason why. Similarly, neither - in theory - can anyone else.

That is the difference.

Anonymous said...


I suggest that a major use of license plate scanning is revenue based. In Houston, for example, the Parking Division uses them to, I believe, identify parked autos subject to booting for unpaid traffic tickets. I notice booted cars downtown all the time with stickers showing $700-$1200 due prior to the boot being removed.

Jardinero1 said...

Heavy Armor, You kinda missed my point. The loss of privacy occurs from the mandate to display identifying information on the front and back of the auto. Why should we have license plates in the first place? Grits believes that the degree of surveillance is the issue, i.e. it's ok for a single cop to run your numbers when you pass him by, but somehow it's worse when they run the numbers of everyone passing by. I suggest that I shouldn't have to display identifying information on the outside of my car for the benefit of LEO's

Anonymous said...


In answer to your question license plates serve two purposes which require their display. One is to confirm (as in providing proof) that the owner has payed for the "privilege of using the state's highways" with a given vehicle. Second, they provide "valuable assistance to law enforcement authorities in the recovery of stolen vehicles".

Whether you agree or not, there's your answer.

Anonymous said...

LPR do effect all crimes not just stolen. And the collect data results in abductedchildren being found, terrorists and murders caught and tons more. If you don't know that you are in denial or ignorant.

Jardinero1 said...

Anonymous and anonymous,

I am aware of the ostensible reasons for license plates on cars. They are red herrings. There are no other taxes or fees which require a person to wear a placard which states they have paid their tax or fee. After you file your income tax return, do you walk around with a metal plate that says "My name is Anonymous and I filed my income tax return." In the alternative, the plate is no proof that you have paid the taxes. The proof is the little sticker on the windshield which contains no outwardly visible ID. License plates are of little use to LEO in recovering stolen vehicles, since most stolen vehicles, if they are found are traced to the owner via the VIN, not the license plate. Rarely is a stolen vehicle identified as it is driving down the road. Abducted children, terrorists and murderers are statistical outlier as a matter of public safety and license plates are rarely of any use in those statistically small events.

Anonymous said...

Jardinero 1,

I would suggest that you are seeing the issue of license plates only from a contemporary viewpoint without recognizing the history behind them. The concept of visual identification proving that taxes have been paid dates back 100 years for automobiles (and much longer for other uses). Once in that mode it can be hard to get a legislature to move to another system especially if the current method now has other stake holders involved (the police in this case).

As for the registration sticker, not all states may utilize the method. Remember when Texas used registration stickers placed directly on the license. I suspect others are still doing so. Even if you were to eliminate license plates for Texas, consider what would happen if you were to drive into another state that still required them. Which means 50 states have to buy into the philosophy behind your position before they could be eliminated.

From the policing side of the equation they are used to ID stolen vehicles while they are still being operated - not all crooks have removed the legal plates only to put others on. McVeigh was stopped by an Oklahoma state trooper for driving without a license plate of all things. I am aware of cops who were skilled at spotting illegal plates on cars by looking for telltales such as being wired on, etc.

Yes VINS become confirmatory but the plates start the investigative process leading to further inquiry. And yes they are also used to track down people for wants and warrants. Spend a night with a cop doing motel parking lot patrols to see what I am referring to.

Regarding your comment about there being no other taxes or fess requiring a placard, you're wrong. New York taxis have been famous for their identifying placards and boats run registration numbers or registered names (and have for hundreds of years).

As for your home the address itself is registered for the purposes of taxation. Talk about a numbered placard around one's neck! Almost all real property is taxed so the owners are all subject to being identified thanks to the concept of public records, again something that has gone on for a couple of hundred years in the US and much, much longer in England, for example. Little difference to what we are talking about.

Hope all of this is of some use.
/s/ Anonymous 5:48 PM

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be so concerned except that I don't know how long this information is being retained by LE. Seems like there should be a limitation.