Street Cameras and License Plate Scanners – Is Public Surveillance an Invasion of Privacy?

When driving down the street, any individual with or without a criminal history is being watched through public surveillance technology including street cameras and license plate scanners; a constant and troubling invasion of privacy.

Street cameras

License Plate Scanners

Photo by: Mike_fleming

To temporarily escape the government’s known watchful eye over the internet, many will close down their personal computers and put away their phones only to again be under constant observation the second they step outside their home. Cameras placed on streetlights, ATMS, and the exterior of buildings such as gas stations and grocery stores keeps tabs on anything happening along public streets. Public surveillance is said to be beneficial for crime prevention and investigation purposes, but for the millions of innocent people who pass by these cameras on a daily basis, it can seem like Big Brother is always watching.

License plate scanners

If an individual is able to avoid the abundance of cameras placed throughout U.S. cities, their vehicle is still under surveillance. License plate scanners, otherwise known as automatic number plate recognition technology can be placed in stationary locations throughout town such as on street lights, toll gates, and freeway overpasses or be attached to the bumper or roof of law enforcement vehicles for surveillance in motion. Unlike video surveillance, license plate scanners link a license plate to a person’s personal information. License plate scanners are used by law enforcement to track a person’s whereabouts and determine if that individual is a person of criminal interest. If that individual’s movements deem them worthy of being scrutinized, their name and vehicle information is added to a “hot list”, and the license plate scanners will alert authorities of that individual’s location at any given time.

Problems with public surveillance

Although public surveillance may have started as a way to prevent crime and protect citizens, now it appears to be nothing more than a constant invasion of privacy. Originally, license plate scanners were few and far between, with scanners at certain high profile areas around cities. Now, those scanners can be found everywhere – always watching, always recording. Law abiding citizens who are not committing crimes are still being observed and monitored on a daily basis, with their entire lives on display and recorded to databases! Days, weeks, months, and even years of an individual’s movements are collected regardless of any criminal history. Law enforcement may know more about an individual by their habits and routines that their own family does.

Stalking escalated

Photo by: hunnnterrr

Photo by: hunnnterrr

Public surveillance by law enforcement is disturbing enough already, imagine if that information got into the wrong hands! At what point will this surveillance of the public become available to the public? For a price, people can already research each other online. For $49.99, all “public records” can be compiled and delivered to anyone, complete with a person’s address, phone numbers, email address, and even any photographs posted online. Imagine if the information obtained through cameras and license place scanners likewise became available to everyone as public record. Public surveillance through cameras and license plate scanners could show that someone picks their young child up from school at 3:00pm daily; grocery shops on Wednesdays mornings; and leaves their children at the sitter while they attend a pottery class at the college on Friday evening. Not only would privacy be moot, this could open doors for an abundance of alarming situations.

Keep public privacy intact

No one should have their personal lives tracked, not even by the police. If a person has committed a heinous crime, then the description of their vehicle along with the license plate number should be given to authorities to be used as needed. For all law abiding citizens, and even those with forgotten parking tickets, they should have the right to privacy until law enforcement is given a reason to investigate them.

Law Enforcement Use of GPS Tracking Devices

Law enforcement officers have different measures to obtain information about a potential suspect including the use of “slap-on” GPS tracking devices attached to vehicles. Without a warrant however, this practice may constitute a violation of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights regarding unreasonable searches.

GPS tracking devices

Photo by: Surrey County Council News

Photo by: Surrey County Council News

The “slap-on” GPS tracking devices are mechanisms that can be placed inconspicuously on the undercarriage of a vehicle allowing police the ability to track the movement and location of said vehicle. These tracking tools allow law enforcement to keep tabs on potential suspects over an extended period of time and can be used to learn the whereabouts of illegal activity.

Protection from unreasonable searches

For several years, “slap-on” GPS tracking devices were under debate, with many claiming they violated a person’s Fourth Amendment rights regarding unreasonable searches. The Fourth Amendment states “The right of the people to be secure ( . . . ) against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause ( . . . ). In October of 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed that GPS tracking devices constituted a “search” and law enforcement must obtain a warrant based on probable cause before placing such devices on a vehicle.

Ankle monitors

Photo by: Washington State House Republican

Photo by: Washington State House Republican

While tracking devices on vehicles were deemed unconstitutional without a warrant, the question was raised whether or not SBM monitors, commonly referred to as ankle monitors should fall under the same scrutiny (Grady v. North Carolina). Each state has their own specific uses for electronic tracking in the form of ankle monitors. Some states use these devices to forever track the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders after they have finished their sentencing. Other states such as Utah permit law enforcement to use ankle monitors on individuals placed on probation. (Utah Code 77-18-1.16)

Grey area

As law enforcement’s use of electronic searches is being evaluated, it is wise to consult with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney to ensure that your rights are not being violated by the use of tracking devices or other means of technological trespass.

Right of a Probationer to Refuse Consent to Search by Police

Offenders on probation have to follow strict rules to ensure their freedom including permitting AP&P officers to visit them at home and work, conducting searches anytime without a warrant; however the Fourth Amendment protects the probationer the right to refuse consent to search when approached by the police.

Knock and talk

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Photo by: Chris Yarzab

Police officers will often use a controversial investigative technique called a “knock and talk” to gather information and possibly gain admission to a residence without having reasonable suspicion of a crime. This is done simply by knocking on the door and asking to speak to the resident or even asking to come in. The neighboring Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which governs appeals in the western U.S. stated “T]here is no rule of private or public conduct which makes it illegal per se, or a condemned invasion of the person’s right of privacy, for anyone openly and peaceably, at high noon, to walk up the steps and knock on the front door of any man’s “castle” with the honest intent of asking questions of the occupant thereof — whether the questioner be a pollster, a salesman, or an officer of the law.”

Come on in!

Donald William Fretheim of Cedar City Utah was on probation following a conviction for drug possession and distribution when a pair of officers with the narcotics division used the knock and talk approach at his door. While investigating a drug case in the neighborhood, they found their way to Fretheim’s apartment. The officers asked Fretheim if they could come into his apartment to speak with him to which he agreed and willfully let them enter.

Consent to search

Once inside Fretheim’s apartment, the officers spotted a soft drink can on the ground that appeared to have been constructed into a cheap pipe used to smoke marijuana. When questioned about it, Fretheim admitted it was drug paraphernalia and gave the officers consent to search the rest of his apartment. The consensual search turned up with additional paraphernalia along with marijuana and methamphetamine. After being read his Miranda rights, Fretheim confessed to the police officers that the drugs and paraphernalia were his.

Probation searches apply to AP&P officers only

Consent to Search

Photo by: Hernán Piñera

Since Fretheim was on probation, he assumed he had to comply with the police officers’ request to speak with him, enter his home, and search his belongings. The reason he thought this was possibly due to the declaration in the Probation Standard Conditions issued by the Utah Department of Corrections stating that being a probationer, he must “Permit officers of Adult Probation and Parole to search [his] person, residence, vehicle or any other property under [his] control without a warrant at any time, day or night upon reasonable suspicion to ensure compliance with the conditions of the Probation Agreement.”

Mistakenly waived Fourth Amendment rights

Unfortunately, Fretheim was unaware that although he was on probation, his Fourth Amendment rights still allowed him to refuse consent to search as long as it was not by an AP&P officer. When he permitted officers to not only enter his apartment but to search his home as well, he waived his Fourth Amendment rights to search and seizure. Even though he was unaware of his right to refuse consent to search, he gave his permission so the consent was deemed valid in court.

Know your rights

When police knock at the door it can be intimidating and most residents wish to be compliant with law enforcement. It may seem illegal to deny them entry to a home and feel downright criminal to ignore the door completely. This is why it is important for individuals to understand their constitutional rights, especially during “knock and talk” approaches when the police have no legal reason to be at their home. Unless an officer has a warrant or demands to enter, the occupant has a choice. If an officer asks permission to enter or search the home, the resident has the option whether to even respond; just as they would to a nosy neighbor or a door-to-door salesman. For more information on your Fourth Amendment rights regarding searches and seizures so you can be prepared if law enforcement knocks at your door or for counsel regarding charges, contact a criminal defense attorney.