Driver Finds Himself Surrounded By Cops With Guns Out After Automatic License Plate Reader Misreads His Plate

from the automatic-bullet-catcher-creator dept

Automatic license plate readers can scan plates at a rate of one per second. Nationwide, several hundred million plate/location records have been captured and stored by a variety of contractors. Mathematics alone says mistakes will be made. Except when mistakes are made with ALPRs, they tend to put citizens on the bad side of men with guns.

According to the Prairie Village Post, earlier this month lawyer Mark Molner was driving through a Kansas City suburb on his way home from his wife’s sonogram. All of a sudden, his BMW was blocked in front by a police car as another officer on a motorcycle pulled up behind him. (His pregnant wife witnessed the incident from a nearby parked car.)

According to what Molner told the Post, one of the officers then approached his car with his gun out.

“He did not point it at me, but it was definitely out of the holster,” Molner told the Post. “I am guessing that he saw the shock and horror on my face, and realized that I was unlikely to make (more of) a scene.”

The mistake prompting this guns-drawn approach of Molner’s video could have been made by anybody. The ALPR read a “7” as a “2” and returned a hit for a stolen vehicle. The hit also returned info for a stolen Oldsmobile, which clearly wasn’t what Molner was driving. But that could mean the plates were on the wrong vehicle, which is also an indication of Something Not Quite Right.

The PD’s statement on the incident is fairly sensible and measured.

“The officer has discretion on whether or not to unholster his weapon depending on the severity of the crime. In this case he did not point it at the driver, rather kept it down to his side because he thought the vehicle could possibly be stolen. If he was 100 percent sure it was stolen, then he would have conducted a felony car stop which means both officers would have been pointing guns at him while they gave him commands to exit the vehicle.”

That makes sense, but there’s still a chance this situation could have been averted. Molner’s plate triggered the hit several miles before he was pulled over as pursuing police were unable to verify the plate due to traffic density. But it appears the officers made a last-minute decision to perform the unverified stop shortly before Molner would have driven out of the PD’s jurisdiction. The stop occurred on the city/state boundary between Kansas and Missouri.

This lack of verification is what bothers Molner.

“I’m armchair quarterbacking the police, which is not a good position to be in,” Molner told the Post. “But before you unholster your gun, you might want to confirm that you’ve got the people you’re looking for.”

So, when the plate reader kicked back a bad hit, the cops did attempt to verify the plate, but it looks very much like they overrode procedural safeguards in order to prevent possibly losing a collar.

As these plate readers become more common, the number of erroneous readings will increase. If the verification safeguards are followed, problems will be minimal. But if anyone’s in a hurry… or the vehicle description is too vague… or it’s night… or someone’s had a bad/slow day… or if the end of the month is approaching and the definitely-not-a-quota hasn’t been met… bad things will happen to good people.

Placing too much faith in an automated system can have terrible consequences. Molner came out of this without extra holes, electricity or bruises. Others may not be so lucky.

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Comments on “Driver Finds Himself Surrounded By Cops With Guns Out After Automatic License Plate Reader Misreads His Plate”

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art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

  1. not sure, but it seems most states only require the rear plate; PLENTY of rear plates here get beat to shit, because they have a bumper hitch and it is constantly getting dinged when getting the boat/trailer/whatever hitched up…
    not to mention ‘dirty’ plates from our limerock roads…
    i’m sure that will make the readers more accurate…
    2. a LITTLE annoyed at the blase reaction of ‘oh, that’s okay, then…’, to ‘SOP that both officers approach with their guns drawn and targeting…’
    no, that’s NOT ‘okay’; it may be perversely “NORMAL” for these police state times, but it is NOT ‘okay’…
    3. to emphasize my point above, i will repeat a factoid that needs telling to deflate the BIZARRE kid-glove treatment given to a cohort which terrorizes and MURDERS 8-10 times more people than so-called ‘real terrorists’…
    in 2011, 33 donut eaters were shot/killed on the job…
    the lowest number since 18-fucking-87…
    kops aren’t being killed in ANY kind of out-of-control numbers, CITIZENS are being MURDERED by KOPS in out-of-control numbers…
    (which -conveniently enough- the dept of (in)justice has NO IDEA what the exact numbers are, because NOBODY IN POWER CARES how many mere citizens the kops kill…)

    kops are NOT your ‘friend’…
    when good kops start SHOOTING bad kops (LIKE THEY DO TO INNOCENT CIVILIANS ALL THE TIME), THEN i’ll cut those overstuffed bullies some slack…

Mega1987 says:

Human Factor

This is one of those occasions that you SHOULD NEVER EVER remove Human factor in such delicate operation…

you say Humans can’t scan as fast as an automated scanner?
those license plate are also subjected to wear and tear…

a few dirt on certain area of the plate will mess up the reader’s result. Thus the situation above occurred.

and seems the police is a bit trigger happy to get into the action….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Paranoia

Computers still suck when it comes to recognizing text and numbers because those things aren’t meant to be easily recognizable by computers. Heck, with certain fonts even certain letters tend to be easily confused by humans (ie: a lowercase l, the number 1, and the capital I, though I can tell the difference with the font being used now) though license plates require fonts and standardizations that make it more difficult to confuse (I believe they must be all caps for instance).

For this reason we came up with barcodes, QR codes, and magnetic strips. While I have seen misreadings on them before they are very rare and certainly much more reliable than a computer trying to read characters. Perhaps license plates can have a QR code to supplement the number along with maybe a magnetic strip for close proximity readings using a device that can read them.

QR codes finally have another practical use, further driving the U.S. into an even bigger police state.

Keroberos (profile) says:

We’re sorry Mrs. Buttle, We were looking for an Archibald Tuttle–but, you know–mistakes happens.

What worries me is after pulling the car over an eyeball verification and manually rerunning of the plate number would have told them that this was not the car or plate they were looking for. They just blindly accepted that the ALPR was correct in reading the plate. And you can’t tell me they couldn’t see the license plate for a manual verification after the car in question pulled over and stopped.

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

No, they were correct in pulling the car over. Issues with verifying a plate number in heavy traffic are common, and the plate could have been switched to another car. But the car was stopped with a cop in front and back, you would think they would manually rerun the plates, before confronting the driver (he wasn’t going anywhere at that point). In every traffic stop I’ve been involved in, it’s been a minute (or more) after the stop before the officer gets out of his car to talk to you. I always assumed they were running the plates at this time to check for any outstanding issues on the car or the registered owner. Taking a minute to verify this manually would have turned a situation that caused citizen concern (and sparked the attention of the media) into something everyone involved gets a chuckle out of (and no one else hears about).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

With their database capabilities, including partial number matching given make and color of car, they could have checked for obvious misreads. They already knew the car did not match the plate, but rather than checking for an obvious misread, they jumped to the conclusion that the plates were on the wrong car. Crooks are generally a bit more careful when using copied or stolen plates on a car, so that a police check does not immediately throw up the wrong make or color of the car.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Defend themselves from what? A gun was drawn on the supposition that the person was dangerous based on a single piece of data. That data was unverified and the person in the car was not acting dangerously when stopped. If the officer was not law enforcement, he would probably be arrested for brandishing a gun in that manner. I don’t mind cops defending their lives with guns, but they don’t get to just pull them out whenever their nerves get a little jumpy. Pulling out a gun before a threat is present makes you the threat.

ChrisB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

This is just idiotic. Situations with stolen cars can quickly escalate into life or death. You ask, “What is the threat?” How about 1 ton of steel? There are many reports of cops being seriously hurt and people killed when criminals try to run in a stolen car.

As long as the driver doesn’t do something insane, like get out the car and run towards the cops, everything will turn out fine.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

As long as the driver doesn’t do something insane, like get out the car and run towards the cops, everything will turn out fine.

There’s just one huge hole in your logic here. Your statement is perfectly valid if we assume the cops are well trained, even tempered, and careful to follow procedure whenever practical. Such a cop would probably be a little more cautious than to override procedural safeguards just to avoid losing a collar. Let’s even suppose that it was within procedure to prematurely conduct a dangerous stop just to avoid him leaving their jurisdiction. Once he is fenced in, what possible reason could they have for overriding a procedural recheck of the plate?

Quiet Lurcker says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Situations with stolen cars can quickly escalate into life or death.

As long as the driver doesn’t do something insane, like get out the car and run towards the cops, everything will turn out fine.

This ‘situation’ escalated from 1) a piece of technology not working as advertised and 2) a cop not being able/willing to stop and compare what the machine was reporting to what (s)he could make out with his/her own eyes.

The only people doing something insane here are the cops. They did NOT exercise common sense, which failure led to the cops being forced into doing things that would limit the legal exposure for the cop shop.

Before you ask, the common sense approach would have been 1) compare actual plate to reader information and (in this case) discover the error, 2) call in actual plate for warrants, stolen, etc., 3) assuming no warrants, stolen, etc., and no crime committed then walk away. If you can do all this while still giving chase, great. If not, if stopping the car was necessary before reading the plate, get out of the patrol car, go up to the driver and either 1) explain that the stop had been because the technology got it it wrong, apologize, and thank the driver for their time and patience or 2) hand out citation as appropriate for any violation.

David says:

Re: Re: Re:3

Usually if I misread something on a computer screen, I don’t draw a gun on people in consequence.

Usually there is still enough time to draw a gun after asking “Sir, it would appear that you are the author of this particular piece of code. Is that correct?”

At any rate, I don’t see that approaching a car with a drawn gun is likely to increase your chance of survival. The only thing that will do that is to have backup as a principle.

You can’t ultimately mitigate the principal danger of police (or anybody else) being killed on the job. But you can make sure that doing so would put an assailant in a much worse position than he started with.

It would also help if things like copyright violations did not carry penalties indistinguishable from murder, in order to make sure that criminals are less often in the “nothing left to lose” category where murder seems like a comparatively cheap offense to commit in exchange for a small chance at escaping.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I expect the cops to take a bit of extra care before escalating a situation that could go bad far any number of reasons. By pulling their guns, even when not aimed, they are acting in a threatening manner, and given the number of bad cops stories, that can be enough to make someone panic and do something stupid.

Anonymous Coward says:

technical solution

This sort of mistake can be reduced by not issuing plates with numbers an letters that are easily confused.

Don’t use:
2 7
1 I l
5 S
0 O

This not only helps ALPRs but also humans trying to read plates in dense traffic.

I made the same suggestion to our developers at work to improve the automatic password generator. Too many users have no clue how to copy and paste and also have a hard time reading.

Maybe I should apply for a patent on this obvious idea, imagine how much money I could make licensing this. (pun intended)

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: technical solution

There’s another technical solution that could have saved some time. I’m also mildly surprised no one has brought this up yet.

The ALPR could have taken a picture of the license plate at the same time it read it. Then, if the system gets a hit, it saves the image. A human can look at the image and double check the machine. If the license plate can’t be read, then the ALPR probably can’t read the license plate ether.

Geno0wl (profile) says:

Re: Re: technical solution

I don’t know how your system does it, but that is exactly how our system works. Though AFAIK it will only save the picture if it gets a “hit” or a “close match”(because of errors like this) to hotlist cars.

This ultimately comes down to training issues. The officer didn’t do his due diligence before approaching the car. Though give him a smidgen of credit for not approaching with his gun aimed at his head yelling about him needing to eat pavement. We have seen many officers take approaches like that. And while this officer did make a mistake, he handled his mistake well.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: technical solution

It’s not practical for cops to pull someone over then confirm, takes too long. However, someone at the police station could look at the picture before dispatching anyone.

I personally think the cop did exactly what he should have. Maybe drawing the gun was a little much, but he definitely should have been ready. The problem I have is he was dispatched in the first place. This should have been checked beforehand.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: technical solution

Don’t use:
2 7
1 I l
5 S
0 O

I have a friend who once had (may still for all I know…) a vanity plate what was something like I01OIO — knowing that cops would get confused as hell if they pulled him over. And, indeed, the one time he told me about getting pulled over, he said the cop kept punching it into the computer and finally just let him go, saying “you’re one of those computer nerds, huh? and that’s like code speak, right?”

Of course, given the story above, you could also see how this might backfire.

zip says:

non-violent "crime" met with lethal force?

My objection is not so much with the traffic stop, but the way it was done — with guns drawn. Which is apparently the proper police dept policy for dealing with any *suspected* non-violent crime:

As for the department?s policy around unholstering weapons, Lovett said the officer was within the guidelines.

?The officer has discretion on whether or not to unholster his weapon depending on the severity of the crime,? Lovett said. ?In this case he did not point it at the driver, rather kept it down to his side because he thought the vehicle could possibly be stolen. If he was 100 percent sure it was stolen then he would have conducted a felony car stop which means both officers would have been pointing guns at him while they gave him commands to exit the vehicle.?

I wonder how many car “thefts” reported to police are over a family argument or misunderstanding — yet settled by deadly police shooting.

Geno0wl (profile) says:

Re: non-violent "crime" met with lethal force?

Sorry but I don’t consider auto-theft the same level as “non-violent” as drug use or noise complaint.
Maybe it is just me and my experience, but the officers approaching the car with their gun unholsterd(not aimed at them) seems perfectly legit given their assumption the car was stolen.
Many officers pull their guns in situations that really really don’t need to, but this one seems fine. Especially considering they never aimed at him.

John Cressman (profile) says:

Plate readers

This whole situation could have been avoided by a LITTLE extra work on the police’s part.

1) Pull up behind the vehicle in question and manually run the plates using the officers visual inspection, which as we learned in a previous article is far superior to any camera recording actual events.

2) Flash the lights, pull the driver over and before you exit the vehicle, run the plates again to verify.

Officers did neither and there is no excuse for laziness in someone who carries a gun.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

It Happened Before-- In The Railroads

Well, you know, years ago, the railroads tried to use painted bar-codes to identify railroad cars, but they got an unacceptable level of false readings, because it turned out that the bar-codes got dirty in actual service in the field. And, of course, bar-codes are more accurate than printed numerals. So the railroads gave in, and spent the money for an early system of RFID. And, mind you, the railroads’ stakes were comparatively low. A failure would only result in a car getting misrouted, and delayed. If you are going to shoot someone on the strength of a tag-reading, you have to be more accurate. If you want to read license plates by machine with reasonable accuracy, you have to replace all the existing license plates with new models which incorporate RFID tags.

At this point, an intelligent criminal is not going to steal license plates, he is going to photograph them, choosing the right model of car, and make fake license plates, using the numbers. That way, the plate owners do not report them stolen, because they aren’t. License plates are a long way behind twenty-dollar bills and credit cards in terms of anti-counterfeiting technology.

Geno0wl (profile) says:

Re: It Happened Before-- In The Railroads

The intelligent criminals already didn’t steal plates. They would/will go to junk yards or other places and pay/steal old plates not in use anymore.
As one detective once told me.
They typically only have the time/resources to catch the stupid criminals, but fortunately 95% of them are stupid.

zip says:

Re: Re: It Happened Before-- In The Railroads

“The intelligent criminals already didn’t steal plates. They would/will go to junk yards or other places and pay/steal old plates not in use anymore.”

Plain common sense. I once did that trick myself when buying a used car from a person just so I could drive it home without attracting unwanted attention (in a state that -to my-surprise- required the seller to keep the plates and turn them in to the DMV). But with license-plate scanners everywhere these days, driving with junk-yard plates is pointless, since they would know in an instant that a plate had expired.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: It Happened Before-- In The Railroads

uhm … for that matter QR codes could be tampered with so that they are difficult to read or so that numbers get flipped. An automatic mass scanner may have difficulty identifying this. At least with a license plate reader a mass scanner can pull up the license plate number that both the scanner and the cop sees and the cop can look to verify that they match and see what kind of car should go with that number. But what happens when a mass RFID or QR code scanner detects one number but the license plate number is something completely different. Would the cop/automatic mass scanners even be able to detect that there is a discrepancy?

The RFID idea works great if you make the assumption that everyone involved is honest (ie: there is little reason for someone to tamper with the RFID on a train). but when the person in possession of the car is the criminal he maybe in a position to make some changes to throw cops off.

Perhaps a Google glass app that the cop can use to look at a car and have a reader read the information and tell the cop what car should go with the QR or RFID code he is looking at or if the code is even legible.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: It Happened Before-- In The Railroads

Modern RFID chips can be read from hundreds of feet away with a hand held scanner. I learned this while researching a way to keep track of kegs at our brewery. The problem with RFID chips (any RFID chip) is that the signal is blocked by metal. The RFID wouldn’t work if attached to a car.

We also researched QR codes, but they would get damaged too easily.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:


…at the number of folks trying to sort out the technical details of the ALPR system. What about the underlying legal issues? Just exactly what is the difference between one of these systems and a GPS attached to your car? I do not mean technical differences, I mean results differences. They both track you.

Arguments for probably include, well it’s public, one has no expectation of privacy, or nothing was put on your car.

Argument against: they are tracking you, and without probably cause.

Don’t fix the technology, fix the systems underlying it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Flabbergasted...

Again there are technical solutions to your concerns!

I think we can all agree that giving police a useful tool to catch known criminals is a good idea. ALPR do that.

Most here agree that the tracking aspects are bad.

If the ALPR in the patrol car has a pre-populated list of plates to be on the look out for rather than calling home to check each one it sees the privacy concerns are eliminated.

When it sees one of the plates on the list it then phones home the only other time it phones home is to get an updated list of plates to look for.

no logs of all the other plates driving by, no privacy problems.

Basically make the system work like an electronic eye with a ‘hot sheet’ that all the cops used back in the day to find stolen cars.

That I would have no problem with and neither should law enforcement.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Flabbergasted...

“I think we can all agree that giving police a useful tool to catch known criminals is a good idea.”

As a blanket statement, I don’t automatically agree with this at all. We need to balance off the usefulness of the tool with whether or not it’s compatible with the sort of society we want to live in and the potential for abuse of the tool.

To dredge up the old hackneyed argument — it would be incredibly useful to law enforcement if they could just come into your house and searched anytime they wanted. But it would be a terrible idea because it’s incompatible with liberty and has an unacceptably high potential for abuse.

steve says:

uhm wait

So, they’re following the guy and rather than run the plates on his car, they “assume” the plates are stolen? Simplest thing in the world to do is run the plate on the vehicle, which would come back as a BMW! This simple 15 second query is all that was needed. Why didn’t that happen???? … something is fishy here!!!

JBDragon says:

I’ve watch Parking Wars, and still even with their Auto Scanners, they still call in and check and make sure it’s correct!!!

Would of that been so hard to do? You know before flipping on the lights to double check what the scanner says and if it’s correct then you can flip on the lights and pull the person over and have the guns out, but until them, Double check first. Why people think Computers are 100% correct?!?! You have to use your BRAIN!!!

Seems there needs to be some training done!!! Not jumping to instant conclusions!!!

Epi says:

Will, not may.

In the future, others WILL not be so lucky. There is no may, no maybe, no might not be… We have to face the facts that cops are not capable of consistently following procedures. They will virtually always act in service and protection of themselves before doing so for the public. If anything goes wrong, the greatest likelihood is that the police will lie. If they make a mistake, a few bad apples will plant evidence to frame the innocent, while the “good” apples will quietly watch, and file identical reports as their fellow “bad” apples. Having automatics license plate readers is also just another system the police can exploit. They can always claim it was the fault of the reader. I think a lot of people are lucky these cops didn’t call in an air strike to prevent the car from going over the state lines. I could definitely see this encounter ending with dozens of people injured from gunfire as police claim they were fearing for their lives. And of course some administrative flunkie coming out an eighth of a second later to claim that all procedures were followed and the police were not at fault for anything. And yet we still have people who make it sound like it is only a few bad apples and most cops are good… yeah…right!

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