A Law Enforcement Officer’s Take on Independent Institute’s ALPR Report

To the layperson, a license plate might be the most boring thing in the world besides the occasional unique background design or humorous custom lettering. But to an officer, a license plate is invaluable for its information. Beyond the make, model, and other relevant details about the car it’s attached to, when a license plate is run, we learn about the registered owner, their driving status, if the driver has a warrant, if the car has been reported stolen, and sometimes other officer alerts. 

However, due to poor safeguards surrounding automated license plate reader (ALPR) technology, license plate-related issues can graduate regular traffic stops to more serious, potentially deadly encounters. 

Jonathan Hofer’s piece emphasizes how crucial it is to have accurate data and records. As he describes, when an officer receives an alert that a car is stolen, the stop is treated as a “felony” or “high-risk” stop. The presumption is that the officer may be dealing with a potentially dangerous person, thereby justifying a higher level of caution and force. 

However, suppose the information officers rely on is inaccurate because of a technology failure or somebody’s failure to record or update a stolen vehicle report. In that case, individuals may be pulled over unnecessarily, and the ensuing situation throws both officers and drivers into a position nobody should be in. 

An important point made in the report is adding automatic data retention limits to ALPR databases. This helps prevent mistakes from building up while also preventing government tracking of people who are not linked to any wrongdoing. This also importantly allows police to continue tracking drivers who are suspected of criminal activity, or missing persons.

Californians deserve to know that their privacy and safety are protected. Hofer’s report offers vital proposals that safeguard the public and strikes a crucial balance that does not compromise law enforcement’s ability to address crime. The Pitfalls of Law Enforcement License Plate Readers in California and Safeguards to Protect the Public is a must-read for cities considering ALPR technology.

Elias Amezcua is a deputy with the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office.
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