Los Angeles Just Proposed the Worst Use of License Plate Reader Data in History.

Last month, when I spoke on a panel called “Spying in Public: Policy and Practice” at the 25th Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in Washington, DC, we were embroiled in a discussion of license plate readers. As a law enforcement technologist, and a working police detective, I generally support the use of license plate readers. I discussed at the conference a child pornography case in which the suspect (now indicted) had fled the city and the police located him using the technology.

From the back of the room came the comment, “The issue is the potentially chilling effect that this technology has on freedom of association and freedom of transportation.”

That’s literally the phrase that leapt into my mind when I read the monumentally over-reaching idea posed by Nury Martinez, a 6th district Los Angeles city councilwoman, to access a database of license plates captured in certain places around the city, translate these license plates to obtain the name and address of each owner, and send to that owner a letter explaining that the vehicle was seen in, “an area known for prostitution.”

Councilwoman Nury Martinez

Councilwoman Martinez feels that prostitution is not a “victimless” crime, and that by discouraging johns, the incidence of the crime can be reduced. Martinez told CBS Los Angeles, “If you aren’t soliciting, you have no reason to worry about finding one of these letters in your mailbox. But if you are, these letters will discourage you from returning. Soliciting for sex in our neighborhoods is not OK.”

The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to ask the office of the City Attorney for their help implementing the plan.

Have Ms. Martinez and the Los Angeles City Council taken leave of their senses? This scheme makes, literally, a state issue out of legal travel to arbitrary places deemed by some — but not by a court, and without due process — to be “related” to crime in general, not to any specific crime.

There isn’t “potential” for abuse here, this is a legislated abuse of technology that is already controversial when it’s used by police for the purpose of seeking stolen vehicles, tracking down fugitives and solving specific crimes.

It is theoretically possible that a law enforcement officer could observe an area he understands to be known for prostitution, and, upon seeing a vehicle driving in a certain manner, or stopping in front of suspected or known prostitutes, based on his reasonable suspicion that he bases on his analysis of the totality of these specific circumstances, the officer could speak with the driver to investigate. This is very uncommon, because it would take a huge amount of manpower and time.

The City Council and Ms. Martinez seek to “automate” this process of reasonable suspicion (reducing it to mere presence at a certain place), and deploy it on a massive scale. They then seek to take this much further, through a highly irresponsible (and probably illegal) action that could have significant consequences on the recipient of such a letter — and they have absolutely no legal standing to write, let alone send it. There are grave issues of freedom of transportation and freedom of association here.

Guilt by association would be a higher standard.

Worse, they seek to use municipal funds to take action against those guilty of nothing other than traveling legally on city streets, then access the state-funded Department of Motor Vehicle registration records to resolve the owner data, then use municipal moneys to write, package and pay the United States Postal Service to deliver a letter that is at best a physical manifestation of the worst kind of Digital McCarthyism. There are clearly Constitutional issues here.

Oh, and what happens to those records once they are committed to paper? As letters sent by the District Attorney or City Council, they would be rightly subject to Freedom of Information Laws. And mandatory retention periods that exceed those of automated license plate data, even though no investigation has been consummated.

Which means that, under Councilwoman Martinez’ scheme, anyone will be able to get a list of all vehicles driving in certain parts of town merely by requesting “all ‘John’ letters sent” between a date range.

Far from serving as, in the words of one proponent, a private “wake-up call,” these letters will surely be the basis of insurance, medical, employment and other decisions, and such a list can be re-sold to public records companies, advertising mailing list companies… To paraphrase @MosheYudkowsky, there would be a chilling effect on commerce in the highlighted area, because who in their right mind would do business at any company located in that area? The list of unintended consequences is long.

So to sum it up, this wrong-headed proposal has, out of the gate, a chilling effect on association and transport, and a chilling effect on commerce.

No non-fascist state should ever allow this to happen.

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NB: there’s a part II to this article. It’s called, LA’s City Council: We’ll get Probable Cause Before we Run Your License Plate and Send you a Shaming Letter. We Can’t Tell You How, though…

Preview: On December 2, Councilwoman Martinez posted to her website a statement that steps back from ALPR and refers instead to, “Vehicles identified by the LAPD.

“While we can’t discuss the specifics of LAPD’s implementation of this tool, there will need to be probable cause to generate a letter — you won’t simply get a letter because you’re in the area. In short, if you aren’t soliciting, you won’t have to worry about one of these letters ending up in your mailbox.”

This would be wonderful except that the plan is still pretty opaque. We’d love to hear the specifics of the LAPD’s implementation before jumping up and down and saying everything is good. Right now, it sounds like “Trust us. We’re from the government.”

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