License Plate Reader Technology Leads to Wrongful Arrest of Grand Theft (CA Penal Code 487)

50-year-old Bay area resident (name withheld in order to protect the privacy of the accused) remembers what it meant to her, 5 years ago, when she was mistakenly stopped by local law enforcement officials in San Francisco who thought she was driving a stolen car.  She was handcuffed, thrown to her knees, treated like a crook and arrested for grand theft  (CA Penal Code 487).  What in the world would have made them think that this Muni driver had stolen the Lexus that she owned?  It was a mistake made by a controversial type of law enforcement technology, license plate readers.  In her case, she has done what many American would have, she sued.  And as her trial concerning the 5-year-old incident nears, tensions bubble around ‘improvements’ to that very same technology that misread her license plate and forced her into this situation in the first place.

License plate readers are meant to help police to better identify criminals with less hassle.  The problem with them is that they are oftentimes inaccurate, as in her case where the plate number was read incorrectly by the machine and officers didn’t bother to check the data before attempting to arrest her.  However, the technology seems to be getting even more terrifying now, companies like the one in Livermore (Vigilant Solutions) are touting facial recognition software and driver information databases as the wave of the future.   In a short time, officers may depend, not only on the accuracy of the machines they use to read license plates, but also on the accuracy of a mathematical algorithm that will determine whether a driver’s face matches one in a criminal database.  The potential for mistakes is astounding.

Beyond the inaccuracy, there are even more pressing concerns about privacy.  While advocates of the new technology claim that it makes the streets, and law enforcement agents, safer, there are others who believe that that kind of easy access to public records is a step too far in violating individual citizens’ privacy.  What is certain is that she would agree with them wholeheartedly and her point of view is expected to be validated by the upcoming trial relating to her original suit.


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