Virginia Court Rules Police Use of the Technology Unconstitutional

A Virginia Court recently ruled that a local police department’s use of automatic license plate readers was a Fourth Amendment violation against unreasonable search and seizures and as a result suppressed all evidence derived from its use in a particular case. The city of Norfolk recently installed a “FLOCK system” of 172 automatic plate reader cameras around the city that tracks the various locations of vehicles, and that information was then stored for up to 30 days in a system that was readily accessible to any police officers in the city’s police department as well as other police departments. In the case at hand, the police used that system without a warrant to track down a vehicle that matched the description from a witness to a robbery and arrested Jayvon Bell in connection to the crime, but Bell moved to suppress photographs of the vehicle and his incriminating statements he made after the arrest, alleging that the constant surveillance was a violation of his constitutional rights. The trial court agreed, with Judge Jamilah D. LeCruise writing that, “the collection and storage of license plate and location information by the FLOCK system constitutes a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and should require a warrant.” The judge found that the abundance of cameras and long-term storage of the data created a “dragnet over the entire city.” In order for law enforcement to use such invasive technology, a warrant is required to obtain the sought after information, much like the installation of a GPS tracker or for a person’s cell-site location information, and not just the stroke of a few keys into a computer system. Assistant public defender Christopher Bettis, who represented Bell, insisted that the ruling would not impact law enforcement’s ability to track stolen vehicles or those actively involved in crime, but it remains to be seen what limits will/will not be imposed across jurisdictions as the technology becomes more widely implemented.

Cook County Residents Sue State to Prohibit Automatic License Plate Reading Cameras

The issue is set to impact multiple forums, as earlier this month, two Cook County residents sued the Illinois State Police, Governor J.B. Pritzker and Attorney General Kwame Raoul in federal court over the state’s use of the same technology, particularly in Chicago and the surrounding area, alleging it is a violation of resident’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to operate such a “system of dragnet surveillance” across the county. Approximately 200 million license plates are logged by automated license plate readers in Chicago per year, with hundreds of cameras being installed on expressways in Cook County after Gov. Pritzker signed the Tamara Clayton Express Camera Act in 2020 and Illinois State Police was awarded $12 million in grant money to expand their network of cameras in response to increased expressway shootings over the last several years. According to the lawsuit, information recorded by the cameras is then stored for up to 90 days, but that the data can be stored for longer periods of time if potentially requested, leading to the possible indefinite retention of the data by law enforcement. The lawsuit is seeking to end law enforcement’s ability to operate the current system and cease further cameras from being installed. Although there is no indication of how the district court will rule on the constitutionality of such technology’s use by law enforcement, it is clearly an emerging issue that has potentially large ramifications for the public at large and those who are facing criminal charges as a result of law enforcement’s use of that or similar technology.