Automated License Plate Recognition Helps Law Enforcement but Endangers Public Privacy

The Henderson, Nevada, Police Department implemented automated license plate recognition (ALPR) in three patrol cars in May 2011 and the next month bragged that a stolen vehicle had been spotted and its driver arrested through use of the technology—which cost $160,000 to be installed in nine cars. Impressive technology, right? (Although it should be, with that pricetag!)

ALPR is maybe a little too impressive. ALPR systems can work night and day, and scan as many as hundreds of license plates per minute on both other moving vehicles and parked vehicles. APLR systems can be installed in cars, but also in places such as light poles and on bridges. So far, so good, especially when best and most used, even only used, to locate stolen vehicles and criminal suspects in their own vehicles.

But ALPR systems are used to collect and store information not only on people suspected of crimes, but on every single motorist, and are increasingly becoming a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance. APLR-generated information on all of us can be routinely collected and stored, even for years. Local and federal law enforcement agencies are rapidly building systems for pooling stored license plate location information across jurisdictions and regions. If current trends continue, we will eventually see the construction of a national database.

The deployment of ALPR systems is increasingly rapidly, and we could quickly reach a point where the devices are in operation on every block, and the data that they record will become equivalent to monitoring every vehicle with a GPS tracker. That level of tracking of individuals’ movements is a significant invasion of privacy that can reveal many facts about our lives, including what friends, doctors, protests, political events, or places of worship that we visit. This is alarming enough in the hands of law enforcement, but if such databases are subject to state and/or federal open records laws, other individuals, corporations, government agencies, or other organizations also could get access to when and where you are driving over sustained periods of time.

Although this fact has been increasingly ignored, forgotten or never learned since September 11, 2001, and the resulting USA PATRIOT Act (which is rife with civil liberties abuses), it is a core principle of U.S. democracy that the government does not invade people’s privacy by collecting information about citizens’ innocent activities just in case they do something wrong. More and more Big Brother surveillance by government must not become the “new normal” in American society.

Clear regulations must be put in place to keep authorities from tracking our movements on a massive scale. State and federal law should prohibit ALPR devices from storing data where there is not match to an offender list or other evidence of wrongdoing. Because police can use this tool for legitimate law enforcement purposes without storing data on the rest of us, adequate privacy protections will not interfere with legitimate law enforcement uses of this technology.

ACLU of Nevada Hosts Town Hall on Police Brutality

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada held two town hall forums on July 24th and 25th. The first was held at the Mexican Consulate and the second was held in a religious meeting hall called Asamblea Apostolica, Tercera Iglesia. The ACLU hosted these events, in collaboration with the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, and the Consulate of Mexico in Las Vegas, to encourage community members and advocates to share their stories on police brutality they have experienced or witnessed.

Eight individuals stood and shared their stories. Some had been humiliated and unnecessarily arrested. Some had been Tasered. Some even had family members face fatal encounters with the police.

After the testimonies had been shared, the floor was opened to anyone who wanted to share other relevant comments and concerns. Consensus seemed to emerge that Metro officers have no accountability and that the sense of trust between officers and citizens has been broken. Several attendees testified that citizens who used to call the police for protection now feared the end result of an encounter.

The ACLU appreciates the courage it took each individual to speak out at these events, and we hope that others will join in. This is only the beginning of the conversation.

ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Dane Claussen welcomed participants both evenings (along with Consul General Mariano Lemus Gas at the consulate and Pastor Antonio Jimenez at the Asamblea Apostolica) and Legal Director Staci Pratt introduced the event. Phil Hooper, the ACLU of Nevada’s Administrative Director, moderated, and Octavio Porales, the Consulate’s Protection Consel, translated both Spanish to English and English to Spanish. Each speaker was invited to share his or her story and was allotted five minutes, so that everyone wishing to share had an opportunity to do so.

by Heba Tellawi, ACLU of Nevada Legal Intern

To kill or not to kill?

In late February of this year, the Nevada Department of Corrections closed the Nevada State Prison (NSP) in Carson City. NSP was the oldest prison in the state and was one of the oldest in the country that was still in operation. The facility was forced to close due to major budget constraints in the state. All of the inmates that were housed in the facility were transferred to other institutions, including Ely State Prison, which houses Nevada’s current death row.

Closing NSP might a stop to any executions in Nevada because NSP housed the state’s only death chamber. Although Nevada Department of Corrections officials say an execution could be carried out, there are serious questions about whether Nevada has a solid plan in place to deal with an execution, including transporting and holding an inmate who is about to be executed. In addition, the drug that is currently used to perform lethal injections is no longer available. If any inmate currently on death row makes a voluntary decision to drop his appeals and be executed, the state has no means to do so.

Recently the Nevada Department of Corrections has submitted a Bill Draft Request seeking $385,000 to create a new execution chamber at Ely State Prison. According to a study that examined the costs of defense attorneys in Clark County spends an additional $200,000 in defense costs alone to prosecute an offender when the death penalty is introduced. This figure does not include costs to the prosecution. There are also substantial additional costs that come from appeals of a death penalty sentence, which have not been studied in Nevada, and also incarceration costs

In essence, if the bill that the Nevada Department of Corrections is seeking is approved, the state could spend millions to build a death chamber and try death penalty cases, possibly without carrying out a single execution. This is at a time when government layoffs and the cutting of essential state programs are a real possibility.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty. In recent years more states have begun to reconsider their policies on the death penalty and more agencies have come to the realization that the cost to try a death case, including the appeals process and incarceration, is astronomical.

Nevada should take some time to reconsider its position on the death penalty and weigh the heavy costs of capital punishment. In the state of Nevada, since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977, there have only been 12 executions, and 11 were voluntary. Is it worth the cost to continue a policy that has little effect on crime and has costs that are well beyond the state’s budget?

No DNA Collection Before Conviction

How do you feel about your DNA being collected and stored before ever being convicted of a crime? Some states have adopted a version of this policy, where the government collects DNA samples after every arrest. Thankfully, Nevada is not one of those states – yet. The ACLU of Nevada has helped fight off automatic DNA collection after felony arrests in 2011, but it could resurface in the next legislative session.

The ACLU believes the practice of forcibly taking DNA from anyone who is arrested before conviction of a crime is contrary to the core American principle that we are all innocent until proven guilty. It is a violation of due process and the 4th Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure.

Proponents of the practice would have you believe a number of things about collecting DNA after every arrest. Supporters believe that DNA collection will prevent crimes against women, exonerate the wrongly accused, prevent crime sprees, reduce racial disparity, and take away rights from criminals. Lastly, they claim that it is a cost effective way to reduce crime.

All of these are admirable goals; however, there is little or no evidence to support the claims that they can be achieved through this controversial practice. There is a lack of evidence proving that this practice prevents crimes against women, or anyone for that matter. It is also unlikely that it exonerates the wrongly accused; the wrongly accused often offer their DNA to exonerate themselves. As for preventing crime sprees, it must be considered that often there is little to no DNA that will be collectible at the crime scene of a “crime spree.” This practice also will not protect people of color, as they are often disproportionately arrested; this practice might actually serve to disproportionately harm minorities. Finally, the belief that this is a cost effective practice is a far stretch from the truth. Collecting, processing, and storing all of these DNA samples would cost millions of dollars, which could be used to fund proven policing practices.

What this practice actually does is subject potentially innocent people to an egregious violation of their privacy. One false arrest could lead to lifelong genetic surveillance of innocent people. A quick inventory and assessment of the facts and myths surrounding the practice should inform the public of whether or not they support this practice in their state.

by Kayleigh Hartwig, ACLU of Nevada Legal Intern

Fair trial, anyone?

People think that forensic evidence is the one of the most condemning pieces of evidence that can be presented. It’s science, so it just can’t be wrong. Right?

Like so many other things in our criminal justice system, forensic evidence can be wrong. It can be exaggerated. The science behind it can even be completely, if unintentionally, bogus.

If the story of flawed forensic evidence ended there, basically that we’re human and make mistakes, it would be not ideal, certainly, but it would be understandable. Unfortunately, the Justice Department has known that some of the forensic evidence used in convictions was flawed, but as the Washington Post reports, the convicted individuals and their attorneys were never told about it. Only the prosecutors were informed.

So in most of these cases where basic evidence used to help convict someone was wrong and the government knew it was wrong, all of nothing happened. Many potentially innocent people continued to sit in prison without knowing the government might hold the key to their release.

The Justice Department and the FBI announced on Tuesday that it will review the use of forensic evidence in thousands of cases, with help from the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. It will “determine whether any defendants were wrongly convicted or deserve a new trial because of flawed forensic evidence,” the Washington Post reports.

This review is long overdue, but it is a step in the right direction. Even if (and this is a big “if”) every conviction is upheld where faulty forensic evidence was used, this review is necessary in the pursuit of justice, which is a lot more than just getting and protecting a conviction.


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