New Ninth Circuit Opinion Calls into Question Blind Reliance on License Plate Camera IDs

New Ninth Circuit Opinion Calls into Question Blind Reliance on License Plate Camera IDs

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has put police on notice: an automatic license plate reader (ALPR) alert, without human verification, is not enough to pull someone over.

Last week, the appellate court issued an important opinion in Green v. City & County of San Francisco, a civil rights lawsuit that calls into question whether technology alone can provide the basis for reasonable suspicion under the Fourth Amendment. The panel overturned a lower court ruling in favor of San Francisco and its police department, allowing the case to go to trial.

A case of computer error

Late one night in 2009, San Francisco cops pulled over Denise Green, an African-American city worker driving her own car. At gunpoint, they handcuffed her, forced to her knees, and then searched both her and her car — all because an automatic license plate reader misread her plate and identified her car as stolen.

The first error was technological: the ALPR unit misread Ms. Green’s plate, recording a “3” as a “7.” The next errors were human. The officer driving the ALPR-equipped squad car never visually verified that Green’s plate number matched the ALPR “hit”—despite an SFPD policy that requires this—even after he called it in and dispatch matched the plate to a vehicle that looked nothing like Green’s. The officer who later pulled Green over also failed to verify the plate, even though he had ample opportunity to do so while stopped immediately behind Green’s car at a red light.

Based solely on the ALPR “hit” and dispatch confirmation that the false hit was linked to a stolen vehicle, the second officer called in for backup and initiated a “high-risk” or “felony” traffic stop. While at least four officers pointed their guns at Ms. Green, she was ordered from her car and forced to spend at least 10 minutes handcuffed and on her knees (this proved so taxing, given Green’s physical condition, that the officers later had to help her up).

A search of Green and her car turned up nothing, and she had no criminal record. Although at this point the officers should have realized they pulled over the wrong car, and—more critically—that Green’s license plate was not the same as the car reported stolen, it still took the officers another 10 minutes before they figured out their mistake and let Green on her way.

Green sued the city and officers, claiming they violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The district court judge granted summary judgment in favor of defendants, finding it was reasonable for the officer that pulled Green over to assume the first officer had confirmed the ALPR hit and further holding it was a reasonable good faith “mistake” on the part of both officers to assume without verifying that Green’s plate matched the hit.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, ruling a jury could find that a police officer’s unverified reliance on an ALPR hit is an insufficient basis for a traffic stop and that the subsequent search and seizure of Green could violate the Fourth Amendment. Importantly, the appeals court noted that an unconfirmed ALPR hit could not provide a legal basis to pull Green over.

Ironically, SFPD already had a policy that required cops to visually confirm that the plate on the car was the same as the plate ID’ed by the ALPR system. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (“IACP”) has described this as one of the “essential components” of training on ALPR use, and several of the state policies mentioned by IACP also require this verification. But in Green’s case, none of the officers followed that policy.

False positives and the danger of over-reliance on technology

This case shows clearly the risks of blind reliance on technology for identification in criminal investigations. If the ALPR camera had not alerted the first officer based on a false license plate read, Green never would have been stopped, and this tragedy could easily have been avoided.

More and more frequently, cops are looking to technology to do initial identification of suspected criminals—whether it’s ALPR for traffic stops, face recognition for mug shots, or DNA for crime scene forensics. Yet these technologies are fallible.

Just last month TechDirt reported that a driver in a Kansas City suburb found himself surrounded by cops with guns out after a license plate camera misread his plate. Similar situations are possible with DNA and face recognition. For example, a man was misidentified as the perpetrator of a brutal home invasion and murder in San Jose based solely on his DNA. Even though he had a good alibi — he was inebriated and in the hospital the night of the murder — he still spent five months in jail. Researchers at NYU note that face recognition poses false positive risks as well, especially when databases like FBI’s Next Generation Identification include many millions of face images. And even the FBI admits NGI fails to provide accurate results in at least 15 percent of IDs.

We have noted before that false positives attributable to tech-based identification systems pose a risk for democratic societies because they turn innocent people into suspects, requiring them to prove their innocence rather than requiring law enforcement to prove their guilt. This completely upends our system of justice. In the United States, there is a presumption of innocence and a Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. This must mean—at a minimum—that law enforcement officers need reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before they can stop you.

Just as officers can make human mistakes that undermine whether there is in fact reasonable suspicion for a stop, this case shows that new technologies can and do make mistakes too. Innocent people shouldn’t have to pay the price for these mistakes.



Los Altos Police Press Release Burglary Suspects Arrested

​​​​​​Los Altos Police Department
​​​​​​Press Information Office
​​​​​​1 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos, CA 94022
​​​​​​Ph: (650) 947-2770 ​Fax: (650) 947-2704

TYPE OF CRIME: Burglary Suspects Arrested ​

DATE OF CRIME: May 15, 2014

LOCATION: 250 Hawthorne Ave​​​

SUSPECT: Nathan James Hubbard​ SUSPECT: Isaiah Magee​

On 05/15/14 at approximately 5:20am, the Los Altos Police Department received a call from a citizen reporting suspicious persons in the area of the 200 block of Hawthorne Ave. Los Altos Police Officers responded to the area and located two suspects who were hiding on a residential property.

The suspects were identified as 20 year old NATHAN HUBBARD of Mountain View and 20 year old ISAIAH MAGEE of San Jose. During the investigation Officers discovered that the suspects were in possession of property belonging to a nearby residence. Officers made contact at this residence and learned that it had just been burglarized.

The suspect’s vehicle was located parked nearby and stolen property from at least five other recent residential and vehicle burglaries in the city of Los Altos was located. Both suspects were booked into the Santa Clara County Jail for burglary, possession of stolen property, and conspiracy.

Investigators are currently working to identify any additional victims from Los Altos and surrounding jurisdictions. Anyone with information related to this investigation is encouraged to contact the Los Altos Police Department Investigations Unit at (650) 947-2770.

BY:​ Sergeant Mark Bautista​​​​​

AUTHORIZED BY: Captain Andy Galea

DATE:​ May 19, 2014​​​​​​ DATE: 05/19/2014​TIME: 11:00AM

Palo Alto city employees to reap a boat load of money on taxpayers sponsored cruiseliner

Financial life preserverPalo Alto would spend $10 million more on salaries and benefits in the coming fiscal year then it did the year before if a new budget proposed last night is approved by city council.

Among other things, the 500-page budget proposes a 7% increase in employees compensation for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The budget proposes spending $150.3 million on those expenses from July to June 2015. In the current fiscal year, which ends in June, the city will spend $140 on those same employees. In the previous year, the city spent $134.5 million.

Other than a few brief questions, council members didn’t have much to say about the budget, in large part because they received the massive binders during their meeting and had only a few minutes to prepare questions. But the the council will review the budget and vote to approve it in the coming weeks.

Contact negotiations

Last month, City Council approved raises for the city’s 582 SEIU employees ranging between 4.5% and 14.3%.

The next largest employee group, with 213 members, is the cities managers and professionals. The city also employs 99 firefighters, 83 police officers, 46 utility department managers, seven police department managers and five fire department managers.

The police and fire unions are in the midst of negotiating new contracts. Police managers would make the most on average of all city employees, with $179,136 in salaries next year, not including benefits.

Utility department management professionals would make the second most, on average, netting $133,139 without benefits. The SEIU employees would make the least netting $70,659 without benefits, according to the proposed budget.

Thousands in overtime

For overtime work, police and firefighters would make the most. On average, each firefighter will take home $14,388 annually in OT while police officers would get an average of $13,815 annually.

The city budget shows taxpayers are going to spend a lot of money contributing to the pensions of city workers. Police and fire pension contributions are the highest on a per-employee basis.

The city’s pension contribution for police managers will be $59,903 on average, according to the proposed budget. Police officers pensions are the next most expensive, costing $42,688 each, followed by firefighters pensions at an annual average cost of $42,289, and fire chiefs pensions at $41,828.

Firefighters and police officers would also cost the most in worker’s compensation, between $12,146 and $12,887 each on average. The same is true of medical benefits.

Medical benefits for police managers would cost the city $19,992 each next year while medical benefits for firefighters and police officers trail close behind at second $18,500 for each employee.

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City of Palo Alto begins cigarette butt cleanup

The city of Palo Alto will soon require all businesses to report how many employees they have and provide other data, but the information could also be used for other purposes, such as the possible ban on selling cigarettes, according to Kim Torke, acting environmental services division director.

City council members and city employees such as economic development manager Tom Fehrenbach have said information collected by the registry would be mostly used to help the city gather information to solve parking and traffic problems downtown.

The information could also be used for disaster preparedness, business marketing, compliance with rules about water conservation, economic development and land use decisions, a report to city council from city manager James Keane said.

At its meeting Tuesday, the council members, with Greg Scharff and Liz kniss absent, voted to move ahead with creating the registry. All businesses would be required to pay a fee from $35 to $75 annually to support information collecting program.

But at the end of a report presented to counsel with a list of potential questions that businesses would be asked, such as: “does the business store hazardous materials or generate hazardous waste?”. “Does the business perform automobile repairs? “and “(does the business) sell tobacco products?”

Councilman Larry Klein told the Post earlier this week that he wouldn’t support the questionnaire asking those questions, because he and other council members wanted to limit it to a short, four or five question form.

Smoking ban

Torke told the Post that his office had asked that the question about cigarettes be added because the council had asked him to look at expanding the city’s current smoking ban in the downtown and California Avenue area.

The city already bans smoking within 25 feet of entrances to public buildings. Eventually, he said, it could help them ban the sale of cigarettes at places such as pharmacies and grocery stores.

Torke said it helps to have the information for people who would be affected by the ban so that the city can go talk to them about it in advance.


The city could already get the same information by going to the Board of Equalization, which licenses businesses to sell tobacco. But Torke, said it would just be more convenient to have it all on one form.

The sample questions also included inquiry about whether businesses use plastic pellets, which are used to make plastic products a rarity in Palo Alto.

Torke said that state water inspectors have asked for such information before when they check on the city’s operation, because the pellets can get into storm drains and eventually the ocean.

He said that state inspectors ask other cities to get information on their business registries. When the Post looked at the business license applications of the Menlo Park, Mountain View and Redwood City, none had questions about plastic pellets or cigarettes.

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