Drivers cannot reasonably expect any privacy in their license plate numbers, according to New York's highest court. After considering the question for the first time, the court held that law enforcement may use license plate scanners at will -- even when no one is suspected of any crime.
Police agencies across the state have been using the technology for years, although neither the courts nor the legislature had officially sanctioned its use. For example, according to the ACLU, police in Rhinebeck, population 7,548, scanned 164,043 license plates over the course of just three months in 2011. A total of eight were linked in any way to suspicious activity.
Despite finding the vast, vast majority of motorists hadn't done anything wrong, the results of those scans are stored in a long-term database. The legislature and courts have not specified how long such records can be kept, according to TheNewspaper.com, a journal focusing on driving issues.
It's unclear what legitimate law enforcement purpose is served by scanning the license plates of every possible driver, as police seem to have done in Rhinebeck. It wouldn't be necessary to scan a license plate to prove a traffic violation, so revenue from tickets wouldn't seem to be the issue.
However, license plate scanning could flag people with outstanding warrants. Why would a village like Rhinebeck want to look for people with warrants out on them? Arresting such individuals might allow the arresting agency to seize money and property from the driver. As long as the police can make a reasonable argument that the arrestee's assets were tied to criminal activity, they can seize that property and keep it until the arrestee files a case to get it back.
Doesn't New York's high court care about mass surveillance?
Legally, this case was not about mass surveillance, unfortunately. The court did not address whether police agencies could use license scanners to keep tabs on people.
The issue the court did address was whether scanning someone's license plate is legally considered a government search. Searches have traditionally been ruled to occur only in places where someone would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. In other words, your home, car and pockets may not be searched without a specific, good reason. On the other hand, reading your bumper stickers would not be considered a search at all.
Unreasonable searches and seizures violate our Fourth Amendment rights. As for license plate scans, "we hold that such a check, even without any suspicion of wrongdoing, is permissible, and does not constitute a search," the court wrote. Furthermore, if a warrant or other evidence of criminal activity is found, it can be used to justify pulling the driver over.