12/11/2018Kentucky Court Upholds License Plate Scan Traffic Stops
Using a fallible license plate reader database check is good enough cause to conduct a traffic stop under Kentucky Court of Appeals ruling.
The use of license plate cameras linked to insurance records is known to produce a number of false positives. Nonetheless, the Kentucky Court of Appeals on Friday declared such systems were good enough to for police to use as justification to stop a motorist.
Roy Lee Lynem told a court that the real reason that Lexington Police Officer Todd Hart and Recruit Officer Head stopped him was that they did not like the way he looked. Lynem is a large black man with facial tattoos and blond-dyed dreadlocks. The officers spotted him as he was leaving the Speedway gas station after buying gas and a drink.
Officer Hart used his squad car's automated license plate reader (ALPR or ANPR) to check Lynem's car, and the system came back with the message "verify proof of insurance." The officer admitted he sees false positives -- up to one in ten -- when using the "Automated Vehicle Information System" (AVIS) insurance database check, but the message was all he needed to conduct a traffic stop.
After pulling over, Lynem got out and ran. He did not get far, but now he faced far more serious charges. A search of the car came up clean, but the officers found a bit of crack cocaine on the ground that they said must be his. Lynem was arrested for drug possession and fleeing. Michael McLaughlin, a witness who was was being booked at the police station after Lynem was brought in, testified that he heard Officers Hart and Head laughing about the incident, saying they did not like how Lynem looked and that they knew he would run.
Lynem argued he should not have been convicted because basing a stop on flaky database information was illegitimate, citing the 2017 Court of Appeals decision in Willoughby v. Kentucky (see the first ruling in the case from 2014).
"The insidious danger of using AVIS as a 'rod and reel' in an evidentiary 'fishing expedition' -- in violation of Fourth Amendment principles --becomes readily apparent," the Court of Appeals wrote in 2017. "Potentially any citizen -- insured or uninsured, guilty or innocent -- is put at immediate risk of being subjected at random or on a hunch to a traffic stop, which then morphs into a legitimate investigatory stop. This logic is the very reverse of the spirit of the Fourth Amendment."
The appellate panel felt differently last week, saying use of such systems on a pretext was acceptable.
"The police officers' ostensible or actual motives in checking Lynem's license plate number in the AVIS system are immaterial," the court wrote Friday. "Lynem argues that the officers in his case were indeed snooping deputies who were 'out to get him' because they did not like the way he looked. But if AVIS had not alerted the officers to verify Lynem's automobile registration, they would not have had reasonable suspicion and could not have lawfully initiated a traffic stop based solely on their alleged animus towards him."
A copy of the ruling is available in a 150k PDF file at the source link below.