What'cha Gonna Do When They Google You?
September 26, 2006 4:44 PM   Subscribe

Police procedure filter: If you're a police officer (sworn, U.S. law enforcement), can you just run whatever license plates and/or I.D.s you want? Does it leave a paper trail of some sort?

My question comes more from a writing project than any personal experience. If a police officer wanted to check on the name of a neighbor or a friend-of-a-friend for warrants, or check the license plates of a random car just to see who it belongs to, is he completely on his own in doing so? Or does he have to put in a request to have it done, along with some sort of justification for his request?

Do police face any kind of regular review for such issues to make sure they're not abusing the priviliges of their authority?

(Knowledge of Seattle's rules/procedures specifically would be grand, but I imagine the situation in one U.S. city would be similar in the rest.)
posted by scaryblackdeath to Law & Government (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Regarding license plates, yes, the police can run checks on any license plates in public view. They do.

"There's absolutely no bar on collecting plates in public," says Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program. "There haven't been any legal challenges, because it's not illegal."

posted by Brian James at 4:49 PM on September 26, 2006

A story about abuses of the system in Michigan.

Usually all accesses are trackable back to the officer, and as a policy they are only supposed to use it for police work. But it's not easy to tell whether someone is looking up a neighbor or a felon. I imagine most problems are found in the course of targeted investigations of officers that are already suspected of corruption, etc.
posted by smackfu at 4:56 PM on September 26, 2006

And these days, in some juristictions, they have computer vision system logging every license plate that cop cars pass. Rather than just notifying officer's of questionable vehicles (stolen, amber alert, apb, owner with a warrant), this data is stored and can be used to retrospectively track movements of vehicles that weren't suspect when they were spotted.
posted by Good Brain at 4:56 PM on September 26, 2006

What about obtaining the person's home address and contact info from the database, not just running a check?

I recall there was some outcry over police use of a database to find out where a pretty girl lived, in order to hit on her, (off-duty presumably). Is that legal-but-frowned-upon? Or does it involve a different kind of database or query that is meant to require paperwork?
posted by -harlequin- at 4:57 PM on September 26, 2006

Smackfu has the link. I should have previewed
posted by -harlequin- at 4:58 PM on September 26, 2006

and as a policy they are only supposed to use it for police work

In practice, this is a broad policy. For example, technically it's police work for even a regular traffic cop to check for violations on a moving vehicle, whether they be speeding, or expired inspection stickers, or registration violations. If a cop is sitting behind you in traffic, expect that you're having your plates run as well. Seriously, some of these guys have nothing better to do all day then make their town some revenue. I have a theory that the police department have some equipment that just automatically scans in the plate ahead of you in traffic, just in case.

But then, I'm a bit paranoid about this sort of thing. I can't confirm the auto-scanning gear, but when I went on ride-alongs in the South Bronx in the early 90s (40th & 44th Pct) the guys I accompanied would run plates manually, which they did basically whenever they felt like it, which was probably less then that it is now, what with computers making it all so much easier, but still a lot.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:06 PM on September 26, 2006

I was once pulled over and ticketed for no other (official) reason than because my plates were "illegally" transferred from one vehicle to another (I use quotations because in fact the paperwork when I got my new car merely got caught up in beaurocracy, so the plates were still registered to the old one). Unoffically, it was probably because I was driving my Missouri registered vehicle through a rich residential neighborhood in Kansas, so obviously I had no business there. Maybe the officer was just so bored that he decided to run the plate of every vehicle that happened by. Either way, yes, an officer can run any plate he or she chooses.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 5:12 PM on September 26, 2006

In Minnesota they are available to media outlets. I used to work for one that bought the data yearly and saved it in a web searchable database. Only people who "needed it" had access but there was no tracking of who looked up what.
posted by thilmony at 5:23 PM on September 26, 2006

They have the ability to do so, but records of who ran what search are kept for several years (exact length dependant on the state). If an officer is found to be abusing the system (using it to track women, or celebrities, or whatever) there will usually be hell to pay.

The states have central computers that dispatch this info, and keep records of which departments have made which queries. The departments are then responsible for figuring out which officer requested it.

Officers are also going to end up having a really bad day if they accidentally run the plate of an undercover, or a few other protected types.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 5:29 PM on September 26, 2006

I'm in Michigan and I got pulled over about a year ago. The cop ran my plate and there was some funkiness about there being no record of the plate number.

The truck I was driving at the time was a lease. The plate was legal as far as I knew up to that point - it had the right tabs, I had a registration for it and insurance - but somehow the Secretary of State (Michigan's name for the DMV) record was hosed. All this is leads to my asking the cop why he ran my plate. My plate number at the time was "TWH-xxx" (it got destroyed in the resulting mandatory impoundment of the car, but I digress).

He replied that my car was the fourth one in about ten minutes with the prefix TWH - which means that four cars in ten minutes all got their plates around the same time at the same Secretary of State office.

So the answer is they'll run a plate for almost any reason.
posted by disclaimer at 6:01 PM on September 26, 2006

Schneier has written about this. Yes, the cops are automatically scanning your license plate.

Not illegal. No restrictions. I don't think there's any circumstance under which running license plates will get a cop in trouble. Doing the reverse search - search by name to pull up your DL photo, plate number(s) and home address - is supposed to be limited to police business, though that's not really enforced either. No, there's no regular review for abuses.
posted by jellicle at 6:01 PM on September 26, 2006

I'm guessuing this is the Schneier article jellicle is referring to.
posted by rafter at 6:50 PM on September 26, 2006

Two different questions in the OP, one re: warrants (criminal background check) and one re: license plates.

1. Warrants: If a cop or prosecutor is just checking a name to see if there are warrants out for someone's arrest, there should be no special permission needed, nor (usually) any repurcussions: They have a database available only to law-enforcement types, and it's used heavily. However, there will be a log -- just as if you were to use Nexis from your home computer to check on someone's background. No reason to check on your search history unless you get caught for something else -- e.g., stalking -- and they need to back-track your moves. (Tho there was a cop in LA who got in trouble for checking on celebrities -- one assumes he got caught only because the names he was checking were so recognizable.)

2. License Plates: Same deal, but much easier to do. In LA, we have police cars with a system that automatically checks plates and cross-references them with DMV records. Hence all the paranoid stories about cops pulling folks over for specious reasons -- it's not the cop who's being nit-picky (or just plain wrong), it's the DMV. And we all know how accurate the DMV's records can be...
posted by turducken at 7:06 PM on September 26, 2006

In many -- but not all -- states, your driver's license and auto registration information are a matter of public record. Anyone who wants access to that information can have it, as long as they submit a written request to the appropriate state agency and pay for the time, paper and ink it takes to provide the information. I can't imagine police would be barred from accessing anything that's a matter of public record, under any circumstance.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:18 PM on September 26, 2006

Thanks for asking this... I've always wondered.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:43 PM on September 26, 2006

That's why you're required to display the plates, so they can be investigated and traced, and why in many juridictions you can get pulled over for having mud on them. Imagine being forced to wear a big label on the back of your jacket with your name, address, etc. etc.
posted by davy at 9:55 PM on September 26, 2006

This probably doesn't apply to DL or plate searches, but for deeper criminal background searches agencies sometimes require the officer to enter a reason code (is a suspect, etc.) before conducting a search. This would also be logged along with the officer's name, agency, search criteria, etc.
posted by turbodog at 11:08 AM on September 27, 2006

I asked a similar question previously.
posted by hootch at 2:23 PM on September 27, 2006

Yes, the cops are automatically scanning your license plate.

I KNEW IT!! And they called me paranoid! Thanks for the confirmation, jellicle.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:40 PM on September 27, 2006

This is commonly used as a end-around for the Fourth Amendment. Officers spot a car that they want to stop. So they get up on it and run the plates. They can find out if the insurance has lapsed or if the owner of the vehicle's license has been revoked. Obviously, they can also see if the person's inspection or registration has expired. Some bored cops will do it on random cars. But it is very commonly done to try to manufacture a reason to make a traffic stop for someone they want to pull over.

It is for that reason that I don't feel police should be able to pull people over for not wearing a seatbelt or for anything they discovered from running a plate. I think that both are easy ways to skirt the Fourth Amendment and, as such, they should not be permitted.
posted by flarbuse at 6:54 PM on September 27, 2006

But not wearing a seatbelt, lacking insurance, having expired inspection, etc. are illegal. Why shouldn't the cops pull them over?

Or should they only run plates on people they don't want to pull over?
posted by turbodog at 9:23 PM on September 27, 2006

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