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Can the police run my plates for no reason?
August 30, 2005 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Can the police run my license plates through the computer for no reason?

My brother's license is suspended and the car I drive is in his name. I was pulled over because of this recently after the cop ran my license plates through the computer. I had been obeying all the traffic laws when I was pulled over. Do the police have the right to run license plates when they have no reason to suspect me of committing any crime? It seems like they shouldn't, but then again, my license plates are in plain view.

FWIW, I have absolutely no plans on pursuing this (if indeed the police were wrong in running my plates). I'm just curious.
posted by hootch to Law & Government (16 answers total)
 
Well, technically it isn't "your" license plate... it belongs to the state.
posted by odinsdream at 10:40 AM on August 30, 2005


Since running your license plates through the computer is simply that—i.e., looking up data that has already been gathered, I don't see how any law could prevent them from doing so.

Think about it this way: A cop can take a radar reading of your car's speed even if he doesn't have probably cause to think you're speeding, right? And he can do that because your car's speed is not privileged information—any observer could figure it out if they chose to do so.

Looking up your license plate is taking a code that you are legally required to display openly (i.e., the license plate number) and looking up whatever information they've already gathered that's linked to that code. Since they're not gathering new information (say, by searching the contents of your car), they don't need probable cause.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:45 AM on August 30, 2005


"...doesn't have probable cause to think you're speeding," that is.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:46 AM on August 30, 2005


Yes, they can...and do.
They can also attach tracking gear to your car without reason or warrant, but that's another story.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:47 AM on August 30, 2005


When I went on a ride-along with a police officer a few weeks back, he ran many license plates through his computer for no apparent reason (and never came up with anything). I'm going to assume that it was all legal.
posted by punishinglemur at 10:54 AM on August 30, 2005


Some of the police outfits are buying automatic license scanners now - drive car through neighborhood, scanner looks for license plates and autochecks them all. Here's an article. No law against it.

If you dislike this, contact your Congresscritter.
posted by jellicle at 11:03 AM on August 30, 2005


Most cops do it fairly regularly. It used to require a radio call to the dispatcher to get the info but many police agencies equip their cars with data terminals that allow them to do their own lookups. I think sometimes the old way was better, in that cops now have to drive, monitor the radio, interact with a data terminal and probably also deal with a cell phone all while doing their job.
posted by tommasz at 11:23 AM on August 30, 2005


Corrected link
posted by Mitheral at 11:23 AM on August 30, 2005


Bringing up registration information of random cars is a good way to combat car theifs who also plate swap.

In Alberta you can use the plates from your old car on your new car for two weeks while you get your insurance/registration straightened out. Just be prepared to be pulled over, a lot, if the cars aren't the same eg: going from a pick up to a sedan or going from an 70s Fargo pickup to a 96 Dakota.
posted by Mitheral at 11:29 AM on August 30, 2005


I figured it was all above the board. Thanks for explaining why!
posted by hootch at 11:54 AM on August 30, 2005


Yes, this is legal. I used to sell systems to the police that would hit all the relevant databases... they can do checks for issues with the car itself, and also check the car's owner for wants/warrants/etc.
posted by mosch at 12:02 PM on August 30, 2005


Literally, the answer to your question is "No" - not for no reason. Granted, it's fairly easy to articulate a reason for running a plate.
posted by whatisish at 12:51 PM on August 30, 2005


Think about it this way: A cop can take a radar reading of your car's speed even if he doesn't have probably cause to think you're speeding, right?

No, police cannot radar you without probable cause, which is usualy their own visual estimation of your speed.
posted by delmoi at 1:06 PM on August 30, 2005


I once watched a parking meter reader walking down the street in Austin, TX. She stopped at every parked car (meter or no) and entered something into her handheld computer. I asked her what she was doing. She explained that her computer was hooked up wirelessly to the city police database. She was entering license numbers. If any came back with outstanding tickets and such, she called the police who would most likely boot the car.
posted by tippiedog at 1:50 PM on August 30, 2005


The meter readers in L.A. don't do that. My car was stolen. I found it MYSELF, a couple blocks away, sans tail lights and stereo, with a PARKING TICKET on the windshield.
posted by clh at 3:31 PM on August 30, 2005


They can run your plates because they feel like it. They can check the registration and insurance because they feel like it. They can demand ID because they feel like it. The only thing you can do about it is look uninteresting.
posted by Ken McE at 5:17 PM on August 30, 2005


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