Another Bogus Hit From A License Plate Reader Results In Another Citizen Surrounded By Cops With Guns Out

from the verification-to-be-performed-at-gunpoint dept

We recently covered a story about a lawyer who found himself approached by cops with guns drawn after an automatic license plate reader misread a single character on his plate as he drove by. The police did make an attempt to verify the plate but were stymied by heavy traffic. Unfortunately, it appears they decided to force the issue rather than let a potential car thief escape across the state line.

As I pointed out then, the increasing reliance on ALPRs, combined with the one-billion-plus records already in storage and the millions being collected every day, means the number of errors will only increase as time goes on — even as the technology continues to improve. This person was lucky to escape with nothing more than an elevated heart rate. Others won’t be so lucky… like Denise Green of San Francisco.

Green’s civil rights lawsuit has just been reinstated by Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned an earlier decision that granted summary judgment in favor of the San Francisco Police Department. The lower court found that the officers had made a “good faith, reasonable mistake” when they performed a felony stop of Green, which included being ordered out of her vehicle and onto the ground at gunpoint and held in cuffs for nearly 20 minutes while officers verified the plates and filled out paperwork.

The Appeals Court disagreed with this finding and the opinion details what the SFPD is supposed to do with ALPR “hits” and compares this to what was actually happened.

It is undisputed that the ALPR occasionally makes false “hits” by misreading license plate numbers and mismatching passing license plate numbers with those listed as wanted in the database. Because of the known flaws in the system, SFPD officers are trained that an ALPR hit does not automatically justify a vehicle stop, and SFPD directs its officers to verify the validity of the identified hit before executing a stop.

Patrol officers are instructed to take two steps to verify a hit before acting on an ALPR read. The first step is to visually confirm the license plate (to ensure that the vehicle actually bears the license plate number identified by the camera); the second step is to confirm with the system that the identified plate number has actually been reported as stolen or wanted.

The opinion notes that the SFPD, at the time of the incident, actually had no official verification policy in place that designated which officer(s) should perform this task. The expert testifying on behalf of the PD indicated that it would most likely be performed by the operator of the “camera car” (the vehicle with the ALPR) but was unable to point to any policy actually stating this.

So, there’s one level of failure. It could be that all of the officers involved (at least four, according to court documents) thought someone else had handled the verification. That would be an “honest mistake,” but that shouldn’t allow the department to escape being held accountable for its lack of clear verification procedures.

On the night of March 30, 2009, Appellant Denise Green, a 47-year-old African-American woman with no criminal record, was driving her vehicle, a 1992 burgundy Lexus ES 300 with license plate number 5SOW350, on Mission Street in San Francisco. At approximately 11:15 PM, Green passed a police cruiser equipped with an ALPR operated by SFPD Officers Alberto Esparza and Robert Pedersen. When Green drove past Esparza and Pedersen’s camera car, the ALPR misread her license plate number and identified her plate as belonging to a stolen vehicle. It was late and dark outside, which rendered the ALPR photograph blurry and illegible. As a result, Officer Esparza could not read the ALPR photograph, nor could he get a direct visual of Green’s license plate.

Esparza was currently involved in an arrest, so he radioed in the hit. He identified the vehicle as a dark Lexus with the plate number 5SOW750, one digit off from Green’s actual number. Dispatch ran the number and found that the plate belonged to a stolen gray GMC truck. The opinion notes that Esparza never bothered to inform dispatch that he had not verified the plate number himself and was working from a lousy ALPR photo.

Sergeant Kim was in the area and heard the radio traffic linking the plate (5SOW750) to a grey pickup and Esparza’s observance of a dark Lexus. Kim had plenty of chances to clear up the misidentified plate, but he never did so.

Sergeant Kim saw that the first three numbers of Green’s license plate matched the plate read over the radio, but he did not visually identify all seven numbers on Green’s license plate. He also radioed Officer Esparza for a description of the vehicle, and Officer Esparza confirmed that the vehicle he saw was a dark burgundy Lexus. Sergeant Kim then decided to make a “high-risk” or “felony” stop…

Because Sergeant Kim believed that Green posed a risk, he waited for backup before pulling her over. While he waited, he followed her vehicle for a brief amount of time and, at one point, even stopped behind her at a red light. At no point while he was following or stopped behind Green’s vehicle did Sergeant Kim visually confirm the entirety of Green’s license plate number, even though nothing obscured his ability to do so. Furthermore, Sergeant Kim did not confirm Green’s plate number with dispatch, but he did hear Officer Esparza inquire whether the vehicle with the plate number 5SOW750 was stolen. Sergeant Kim admits that if he had read the full plate, he would not have had the reasonable suspicion to effect the stop.

But the stop was made and Green was approached by at least four officers with weapons drawn. She was restrained, cuffed and held while the SFPD officers finally got around to verifying the plate number on her vehicle.

The SFPD, while fighting Greene’s Fourth Amendment claims, chose to spin Officer Esparza’s lack of verbal confirmation that he had personally observed the plate (rather than the ALPR’s lousy photo) as a credible, non-verbal assertion that could “reasonably” prompt other officers into action. Sergeant Kim took Esparza’s lack of information to be an affirmation of his visual verification of Greene’s plate, giving him the reasonable suspicion to effect the stop. The court approaches this argument from another angle, stating that Esparza’s lack of confirmation should have been an indication that Kim needed to perform additional verification.

Because of the SFPD’s lack of clear policy and the Officer Kim’s willingness to believe Esparza’s unstated claims, the officers effected a felony stop based on very little information and a whole lot of belief. Neither of these are enough to rise to the level of “reasonable suspicion,” and certainly not enough to justify the amount of force deployed — especially considering Greene was “physically unthreatening” and compliant during the whole stop.

Once again, we see law enforcement deploying technology without guidelines for usage. (We also see Sgt. Kim’s reluctance to spoil a felony stop by actually reading a license plate that was directly in front of him for several minutes…) Many police departments tend to prefer unsupervised tech, an attitude that is increasingly resulting in policy being set by lawsuit. Abuse first, settle later, and lastly, institute guidelines. It’s a hell of a way to “enforce law,” when everyone’s being policed but the police.

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Comments on “Another Bogus Hit From A License Plate Reader Results In Another Citizen Surrounded By Cops With Guns Out”

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Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Don’t forget, they had to fill out the paperwork on the stop, which only increased when they realized they had the wrong car.

Why’d they keep the handcuffs on? Because Officer Safety policies trump both statutes and the constitution. Someone wrongly handcuffed might be angry about it, which poses a threat.

Of course, if that actually justified anything, then muggers are wrongfully convicted every day.

Bill Stewart says:

Re: Re: Here is the *real* cause:

They knew what her race was when they dragged her out of the car, handcuffed her, and threw her on the ground, instead of telling her “License and registration, please!”

I’m white, but I’ve got a beard and long hair, and I’ve found my interactions with cops have become a lot less harassing after my hair turned gray and I started most conversations with “Hi, officer, let me put on my reading glasses”, so I looked more like a harmless old guy than a hippie who might be up to all kinds of things in the beat-up van I was driving.

Whoever says:

GMC truck vs. Lexus

The officers knew that the stolen vehicle was a GMC truck, which could not possibly be mistaken for the Lexus. In other words, the officers *knew* that she was not driving the stolen vehicle.

At most the officers could think that she was driving a car with a stolen license plate. Does this merit a stop at gunpoint?

Joe says:

Re: GMC truck vs. Lexus

Yeah, something stinks here… A database that doesn’t mention the color or make (things you’re required to put on vehicle registration forms for the plate) is worse than useless. Also, these counties where they record the numbers for posterity are insane. Assumption of innocence, my rear (plate)!

Peter Courtenay Stephens says:

Re: GMC truck vs. Lexus

The police nation wide both local and federal, all believe that any thing requiring a stop or attempted arrest requires drawn weapons. That includes women breastfeeding in a public place where it is not allowed.
Wake Up !
Nothing the Government does can be trusted in any way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well, let’s see. It’s dark out. The camera got a lousy shot and misinterpreted it. The image in the car was unreadable. The sergeant followed the vehicle for “several blocks”. They finally pulled her over, AT GUNPOINT. Why didn’t any of these Einsteins think to actually LOOK at the plate with their super bright lights on, and read it themselves, especially since the vehicle descriptions didn’t match? I see nothing but excuses and gross negligence, not to mention incompetence. Someone needs some serious reeducation, and the city needs to lose a few million to wake them up. Maybe That One Guy is right. They were just having fun.

Anonymous Coward says:

Bunch of idiots, if you notice how this is going, the police are just using civilians as training props, we are used as a live training exercises, this was done at Las Vegas airport about a week ago sunday on mothers day, an alarm went off stating that there was a fire and that we need to evacuate the building, no one moved from what I could see, until after about 5 min, it was said to be a false alarm, my point is that when I arrived at the airport I noticed more than the usual amount of security, I noticed groups of 6 of TSA at different locations and pairs of vested POLICE that would have a hard time running any length of time in different areas, I travel a lot and never see more than one patrol car at the drop offs and rarely ever see groups discussing procedures. Don’t be surprised when they break into your home guns drawn with itchy trigger fingers ready to shoot and empty there clips and afterwards claim it was the wrong house and apologize.

zip says:

I’m not a car thief, but if I were one, I think the first thing I’d do when stealing a car is to replace the license plates. They’re not locked down in any way (a major security breach IMSHO) and only held on with two screws that can be removed in a few seconds.

Many states have relocated the month/year stickers to the inside of the windshield because thieves were routinely stealing them when they were stuck on the plates.

Why are license plates still so easy for anyone to steal? Tradition, perhaps. For most of the history of the automobile (until about 1970) a car’s engine hood was unlocked, giving a thief easy access to steal the battery (which was not even bolted down until about 1970 also)

But back on topic here, I’ve never understood why US cops are so quick to draw their guns on non-violent, non-fleeing suspects. Would a 6-year-old caught stealing candy get the same treatment?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

But back on topic here, I’ve never understood why US cops are so quick to draw their guns on non-violent, non-fleeing suspects.

That’s simple: they’re pussies. They’re cowards. They’re weaklings. They’re frightened little pissant wimps.

That wasn’t always true. The saying “One riot, one ranger” is apocryphal, but had its roots in a deep tradition of courage and self-sacrifice. But that’s long-gone. Your typical cop today is a bully, a rapist, an idiot, a liar, and a thug. Oh, and fat/out-of-shape — lacking the self-discipline and professional pride to be fit enough to deal with an unarmed suspect one-on-one without a weapon.

So put yourself in their shoes. You have an inferior mind, so you don’t comprehend the situation because you can’t. You’re frightened. You know that your cop buddies will back you up with any lies you ask them to tell. You have a badge and power. Why not just shoot someone? You’ll probably get away with it. At most you’ll get some paid time off and a reprimand, but that will all be forgotten soon enough.

Bill Stewart says:

Re: Car thieves

Some car thieves are amateurs, some are professionals. The amateurs generally haven’t thought the problem through very thoroughly, and may not be very bright, and are often stealing the car for their own use; in San Francisco it usually won’t get noticed until it’s accumulated ten parking tickets (which usually isn’t very long, because the thieves don’t usually care about parking rules much.)

Professionals stealing a pickup truck would either be shipping it out of the country or taking it to a chop-shop to sell it as parts. It wouldn’t be on the street long enough to get caught with the original plates.

Bill Stewart says:

Re: Cop Education Levels

Lots of cops, even rookies, have college degrees. Sure, they’re often in “Criminal Justice”, which may not be up at the high intellectual level of a “General Business” degree (ahem), but they do include some relevant training as well as general education; I’d hope most programs in Criminal Justice would include some constitutional law along the way.

It’s not like the old days where you could go from not passing high school to being an MP in the military to being a cop just because it was a job that let you bully people, though I’ve known some cops who did follow that career track.

scotts13 (profile) says:

It's fun!

Note the phrase in the article: ” spoil a felony stop.” They’re bored, and they want to play with their guns. Good for the adrenaline (not to mention testosterone) levels to leap into action, weapon drawn, like an action hero. Better still if it’s a non-threatening middle-aged lady; no danger you’ll actually get hurt. OF COURSE they’ll overlook any opportunity to actually verify the identification; it might spoil the fun!

Cornanon says:

Militarization of Police

I think these incidences are examples of a fundamental shift that’s been underway for at least a couple of decades. This shift has resulted in many police treating citizens as enemies.

First we saw SWAT teams that had a limited legitimate purpose — when you had serious incidents involving individuals with assault weapons who were posing an extreme threat (thanks gun lobby). The North Hollywood bank robbery in the 90s comes to mind as a legitimate use of SWAT.

Over the years there has been an expotential growth of the use of SWAT which has reinforced the attitude that citizens are potentially the enemy. And because 99% of the time these cops get away with the most egregious behavior, it reinforces their feeling of being above the law. Mix that with an ignorant and apathetic population and you have a recipe for disaster.

Finally, we’ve got this huge corporate military industry that like any sector is always looking for new markets and they’ve found them in local police departments.

Unless people wake up, this doesn’t bode well for the future.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:


I’ve been reading the letters of Pope Gregory VII (1074-1085). That suggests something. Make Sgt. Kim kneel on the sidewalk outside Ms. Green’s home, wearing only his underpants, for several days, until she decides he’s had enough, pretty much the way the Pope did with the German emperor in January, 1077. You know, “Bad Dog! Bad! Baaad!”

Anonymous Coward says:

Frankly, I think the old joke about “How do you tell if a politician is lying?” is more accurately applied to police. After all, how many professions do you know of where upon starting employment, they swear an oath, and during employment, do everything within their power to stay as narrowly within the boundaries of the letter of the oath, while violating the spirit of the oath as much as they can.

A few examples:
1. A police officer pulls you over during a traffic stop. When they approach you, what’s the first question out of their mouth?
“Excuse sir/madam, do you know why I pulled you over?”
Why are they asking that question? After all, they already know why they pulled you over. The reason for that question is to attempt to trick you into forgoing your 5th amendment rights against self incrimination.

2. If they’re called to your house because of a noise complaint or any other reason. They will try to get you to invite themselves in to talk with you. Reason? So they can observe what you have on the premises and perhaps find something illegal. Hmm. Sounds like a 4th amendment right violation against search and seizure without a warrant.

3. Drug interdiction officer pulls over a suspect on the road and while searching, casually chats with the suspect. Officer notices what looks to be a concealed compartment and continues to chat and looking for other possible compartments. NOTE: Officer DOES NOT have the suspect open the compartment, nor does the officer open it himself. Later after the search is completed, the officer then has the suspect open the compartment.
Reason? Because the suspect is being stupid and saying things that can be used against himself in a court of law. If the officer had the compartment opened, and if contraband was found in the compartment, the officer would be required inform the suspect of his rights and the suspect would be likely to get smart and actually shut up.

4. It’s perfectly legal for an officer to lie to a suspect, whereas it’s not legal to lie to an officer. Bit of a double standard there. Why is it permissible for an officer to lie? “Because it makes them ‘more effective’.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Point (4) "'s not legal to lie to an officer."

Worse yet, the officer’s interpretation of what you said is what becomes official. If he mishears you or misrepresents your speech, you are liable for whatever he says you said.

In order to ensure that you can call the cop a liar about anything he mistakenly says you said, practice the following sentences until they are automatic.

1) On advice of counsel, I do not answer questions, and I do not consent to searches.

2) Am I being detained, or am I free to go?

Make those the ONLY statements you ever offer without the presence of your attorney to advise you.

simality (profile) says:

Re: Re: Point (4) "'s not legal to lie to an officer."

Worse yet, the officer’s interpretation of what you said is what becomes official. If he mishears you or misrepresents your speech, you are liable for whatever he says you said.

>In order to ensure that you can call the cop a liar about anything he mistakenly says you said, practice the following sentences until they are automatic.

>1) On advice of counsel, I do not answer questions, and I do not consent to searches.

>2) Am I being detained, or am I free to go?

And these things can’t be misinterpreted or “misheard”?

I get that you don’t want to shoot the breeze with your friendly patrol officer but answering the basic question in the simplest manner possible isn’t a bad idea either.

Example: I got caught in two “safety” stops last month. When you work the night shift in a not-good part of town such things are a fact of life.

Here’s how they went down:
Cop approaches, looks at my car through the windows and asks to see my ID. I hand it to him. He asks, “Do you still live at [address].”

Good answer: “Yes.”
Bad answer: “On the advice of counsel, I do not answer questions and I do not consent to searches.”

Then he asks, “Are you headed to or from work?”
Good answer: “From work.”
Bad answer: “On the advice of counsel, I do not answer questions and I do not consent to searches.”

Then he asks, “Where do you work?”
Good answer: [place of employment]
Bad answer: “Am I being detained or am I free to go?”

End result is the same either way but if you give my bad answers the cop is going to remember you, run your plate and maybe find something you’d rather not have come up. He may also put a note in the database next to your plate number, “Individual acted suspiciously at routine safety stop.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Point (4) "'s not legal to lie to an officer."

Cop approaches, looks at my car through the windows and asks to see my ID. I hand it to him. He asks, “Do you still live at [address].”

Bad answer: “Yes.”
Cop has now confirmed that you do not live in the neighborhood and now has cause to suspect you of illegal activity.

Then he asks, “Are you headed to or from work?”
Bad answer: “From work.”
Cop now suspects that you may be returning from making a drug sale since you’ve already admitted that you don’t live in the neighborhood.

Then he asks, “Where do you work?”
Bad answer: [place of employment]
Cop now believes that you are lying to him, as he has already made up his mind that you are a actually drug dealer and only in the area to make a sale.

Of course, he knows that he probably won’t find any drugs in your car because you’ve already sold them, but he’ll have a look in your car just to make sure. And maybe your body cavities, too. And since he now thinks, based on you being stupid enough to answer his questions, that you were using your car to deal drugs, he’s going to confiscate it under forfeiture laws. Good luck getting it back, unless you’ve got a really good lawyer and more money than the car’s worth to spend to get it back.

All based on his mind’s interpretation of your answer’s, which is all that counts at this point.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Point (4) "'s not legal to lie to an officer."

“Under your logic it doesn’t matter what I say, and since my name, address and place of employment can be easily verified (or determined) by items already in my possession I might as well be honest.”

No, you don’t get it. You might as well keep your mouth shut, because what ever you say can be twisted and used against you. Nothing you can say will help you, so the less you say, the better.

simality (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Point (4) "'s not legal to lie to an officer."

No, you don’t get it. You might as well keep your mouth shut,
>because what ever you say can be twisted and used against
>you. Nothing you can say will help you, so the less you say,
>the better.

And silence can’t be used against me?

Let me give you a little bit more details about the “safety stop”s. They are already set up when I get there. Every car is stopped and every driver is questioned. Even at 3 in the morning there can be a line. There wasn’t a line at this stop (when I got there) which is probably why I got more attention than I had received the week before. But although the cop may have been bored, the answers I gave and the way I gave them made me too boring to be worth his while.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Point (4) "'s not legal to lie to an officer."

It’s all about context. If you’ve done nothing wrong, have nothing to hide, and the officer isn’t fishing for incriminating statements, it’s probably OK to speak to them. If it’s obvious from the officer’s questioning that you’re currently a person of interest in some crime or they want to search your car for evidence of anything, it’s best to invoke your constitutional rights confidently and unequivocally.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Small correction: #3 isn’t actually true. You don’t actually trigger the Miranda warning until you are being interrogated (in other words, already in custody). They do not need to read you your rights during an arrest. And anything you say or do during the arrest can be held against you. The idea that they have to do it the moment they start to apprehend a criminal is a movie fiction.

Therefore, if an officer asks you to open a compartment, and they see something they think is illegal, they can ask you what it is and your response can be used against you even if you haven’t been read your rights yet. Small distinction, but it’s there.

MedicalQuack (user link) says:

Tech users are the problem here...

If police departments would just use this technology like their supposed to as a tool this crap would not happen. I had an experience to where it was correctly and got my purse back even before I missed it. I had a break in my house, they took my purse and I had not even missed it yet when the police department called and said they had my purse. The police car was alerted that the the car in front was stolen, a good thing so they proceed to pull the car over.

The folks tried to outrun the police and didn’t come easy and they had other stolen property too. Turns out the two were meth addicts and were looking for money. So in this case, I was happy as it was done right. If the police can see from the license plate that the car is stolen, that’s not a bad thing as it is pretty obvious you have thieves behind the wheel.

In reading the article above the technology and the police were out of line with it, sadly. I also wrote about the the data bases that are collected outside of police agencies too and ALL data sellers should be required to buy a license.

The police officers that recovered my purse were just your normal guys working a beat, been with the police for years and had not big egos, just doing their job and wish we had more of these types out there.

RichardLB (profile) says:

So where is the problem?

Regarding Denise.. First off, why describe her as being “African American” and it being “dark out”? Wtf? Pulling the race card is an ambulance chaser move looking to make $$. Oh, and NOT describing either officer’s race is pretty obvious.

They didn’t get a clear shot, but they got MOST of the numbers. That’s a heck of a lot better THAN BEFORE they had this technology to assist them. This TechDirt article is jaded trash written to incite people. Sit your rear behind e wheel of the cruiser and see just how much stress you are under to “get it exactly right every time.” It isn’t a clerical job behind the wheel. Remember they are DRIVING? That’s TWO TONS of vehicle they are moving around, other vehicles on the road, stop & go, pedestrians, etc. This isn’t robocop here (although the author wants it to be like RoboCop III where he overloads on the conflicting rules).

While I agree that the complete reliance on technology is a bad thing, I also think it is a bad thing to toss around trash like this for the sake of causing a stir. What happened in each of these cases? Oh.. That’s right.. Nothing. Just some pride hurt.

I’d rather be mistaken in this way as a criminal and then quickly cleared (20 minutes, which is likely exaggerated, is nothing in comparison to your overall lifespan) then not have the police actively pursuing criminals.

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