Tim Cushing
Tech Dirt
April 28, 2014

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.

Base image: xerostomia / Flickr
Base image: xerostomia / Flickr

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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