How might you wind up on the bad end of a cop's gun without doing anything wrong?
Apparently it's as easy as having a "7" on your license plate.
Mark Molner, a lawyer from Jefferson County, Kansas, was returning from a sonogram appointment with his pregnant wife when a police officer pulled him over, gun drawn.
Can you spot the license plate scanner on this vehicle? It's on the back right, mounted on the trunk (Image source: Prairie Valley Post).
Molner hadn't committed a crime. He hadn't violated any traffic rules. He was simply the victim of a misread by the Automatic License Plate Reader system - which identified the "7" on his plate as a "2," triggering a "stolen vehicle" notification on the police laptop.
Law enforcement units in various states across the nation have begun using ALPRs to identify vehicles involved in accidents, theft and otherwise illegal activity.
Millions of plates have already been scanned and entered into contractor databases which funnel information back to non-law enforcement agencies too -- anyone who will pay for the location information -- such as private investigators or insurance companies.
With that sheer volume of plates scanned, mistakes are bound to happen.
But this mistake led to police drawing a gun on an innocent man.
According to the Prairie Village Post, Capt. Wes Lovett -- police department spokesman -- said the particular license plate reader used in this stop has “been in service now for over a year and during this time no one has ever been falsely arrested or has it ever provided a false reading on a stolen auto.”
Lovett told TheBlaze that although scanning errors are infrequent, they do occur from time to time.
"Sometimes it just happens," Lovett said. "You'll be driving and you'll get a hit on a license plate, and it will show up on your laptop -- here's the plate and here's the hit associated with it, like a warrant or a stolen auto. Then before we stop that car, we'll confirm the car's tag and compare it to the picture we have on our laptop."
In this case though, Lovett said the patrol unit "didn't have time" to confirm the plate because of traffic and "proximity to the state line."
As for the guns-drawn policy, he said the officer on scene was within department guidelines - which are essentially none.
“We can't regulate each potential scenario for drawing weapons, the officer has discretion on whether or not to unholster his weapon depending on the severity of the crime,” Lovett said. “In this case he did not point it at the driver, and he holstered the gun once he determined the car wasn't stolen."
ELSAG North America provided the scanners that "sometimes" misread the license plates (Image Source: ELSAG).
Lovett said just this year the license plate scanners have led to more than 100 "good" arrests. And this weekend the Kansas City Star reported on one such arrest: Illinois license plate G86-5203, the alleged "Kansas City Shooter."
[sharequote align="right"]"I think people would be surprised by license plate reader ubiquity, particularly in small towns, and how much data on completely innocent people is being stored," [/sharequote]
The suspect terrorized interstate Kansas drivers for weeks; twelve cars were hit, their metal bodies pierced or windows broken by .380-caliber bullets -- one mother even reported a bullet ripped through her vehicle just inches from her child's head.
When one witness finally spotted some erratic driving and reported the plates, the Kansas City Police were able to comb through previous data and match suspicious activity; in the past year, plate readers snapped at least four pictures of G86-5203 while recording the precise Global Positioning System coordinates.
In this case, the shooter might still be on the road had it not been for the license plate system.
While the technology certainly acts as an effective tool for law enforcement, privacy advocates take issue with the indeterminate collection of data on innocent members of the public. The Kansas City Star reported:
"In front of your home or at your place of worship, while you drive to work or park outside your paramour’s place. And once your plates have been photographed, no current federal, Missouri or Kansas regulations limit how long the information can be kept. In most cases, you are prevented from seeing what information law enforcement may have gathered on your plates.
“You know, I think the average driver is probably aware that there are license plate readers out there,” said Allie Bohm, an advocacy and policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.
“But I think people would be surprised by license plate reader ubiquity, particularly in small towns, and how much data on completely innocent people is being stored and how long that data is being stored in many cases.”
So do the benefits outweigh the costs? Molner isn't convinced -- he insists he doesn't want to "armchair quarterback" the police, but thinks the police should have to double-check their scanned license plate readings before taking out their weapons, and uses his case as an example.
“It was rush hour, and there were a lot of people around,” he said. “That doesn’t seem like the situation where you’d err on the side of taking the gun out. It if had gone off, or he’d dropped it, it could have hit any number of people.”