Police blotter: When can cops run license-plate searches?

In this week's installment, appeals court says police need no justification to check license plates against databases.

"Police blotter" is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: A Michigan man who was arrested after a police officer checked his license plate against a computer database tried to suppress that evidence on privacy grounds.

When: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Sept. 5.

Outcome: Defendant loses when appeals court rules that Americans have no Fourth Amendment protection against computer checks--even extensive ones--of their license-plate numbers.

What happened, according to court documents:

When Officer Mark Keeley of the Farmington Hills, Mich., police department was driving around a local shopping center, he noticed a white van idling in the lane closest to the stores. A man was inside and the lane was marked with "Fire Lane" and "No Parking" signs.

Keeley entered the vehicle's license-plate number into his patrol car's Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN). According to the Michigan state government's Web site (PDF), LEIN databases include missing persons, Michigan state criminal history, prison and parole information, and a list of wanted people from the National Crime Information Center.

The LEIN search showed that the vehicle was registered to Curtis Ellison, a black man who had an outstanding felony warrant. Keeley called for backup, approached the van and arrested Ellison. During the arrest, Ellison was found to have two firearms. He was later indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of federal law.

The trial judge ruled, however, that the van was not parked illegally and therefore Keeley did not have probable cause to run the LEIN check of the van's license plate. Therefore, the judge reasoned, the results of the LEIN check should be suppressed, including the discovery of Ellison's two firearms.

The U.S. Attorney's office appealed, saying that Americans have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their license-plate numbers, and therefore police need no probable cause to conduct computer checks.

In a 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel from the 6th Circuit agreed. They said that "a motorist has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information contained on his license plate under the Fourth Amendment...The very purpose of a license plate number, like that of a Vehicle Identification Number, is to provide identifying information to law enforcement officials and others." (The majority also rejected Ellison's argument that he was racially profiled because he was black.)

In a dissent, however, Judge Karen Nelson Moore said the U.S. Attorney raised the argument at a late stage and it should be rejected. Without more information collected by the trial judge, such as how much information on the general public is available on the LEIN system, Moore said, it's impossible to evaluate how intrusive the computer check is.

Moore said that the key point was not whether police could read someone's license plate but under what circumstances they could perform an extensive search of computer databases. She said the FBI's National Crime Information Center system contains more than 23 million records about people and vehicles--not all accurate or up-to-date--and "allowing the information contained therein to form the basis for a seizure without any other heightened suspicion, let alone probable cause, compounds the risk of privacy intrusions that errors in these databases impose."

Featured Video
This content is rated TV-MA, and is for viewers 18 years or older. Are you of age?
Sorry, you are not old enough to view this content.

Microsoft leaves Apple in the dust with tablet and laptop innovation in 2015

Will there be one Apple Ring to rule them all? That's what a patent application says. Plus, building the thinnest gadget isn't innovation anymore and Apple just got a reality check from Microsoft.

by Brian Tong