Driver handcuffed at gunpoint over license plate-reader error

Daily News Article   —   Posted on May 14, 2014

license_plate_reader

A license plate reader.

(by Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle) – [A California woman who was pulled over, handcuffed, and forced to kneel while at least four police officers pointed guns at her can sue the police department over their erroneous license plate reader result, a U.S. appeals court ruled Monday.

Denise Green, who works for San Francisco as a municipal driver, first sued the police department for wrongful detention and excessive force after she was [detained] in the March 2009 incident. U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg dismissed her suit, asserting that the police reasonably believed Green was a suspected car thief because of the information transmitted on a vehicle-mounted license plate reader. [The suit was dismissed on the grounds that there was a reasonable suspicion to stop her and that the officer used reasonable force.]

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a jury should decide the case in no small part because the license plate read by the electronic reader was for “a car with a different make, model and color” than the 1992 Lexus ES300 that 45-year-old Green…was operating.]

“A rational jury could find that (the officers and the city) violated Green’s Fourth Amendment rights” against unreasonable search and seizure, the court said in a 3-0 ruling.

Green, 47, a San Francisco resident with no criminal record, was driving her 1992 Lexus on Mission Street late one night when the automatic license-plate scanner on a police cruiser identified her car as stolen. The stolen vehicle was actually a truck with a one-digit difference in the license plate, the court said.

Officer Alberto Esparza, who was driving the cruiser, couldn’t see Green’s plate or read the blurry photo, so he radioed a dispatch office that verified that the number picked up by the scanner came from a stolen vehicle. Sgt. Ja Han Kim, patrolling nearby, heard the message, spotted Green’s car and, without reading her license plate, called for backup support and pulled her over.

Between four and six officers ordered Green out of the car, treating her as a high-risk suspect. While other officers pointed their guns at her, Kim ordered her to get on her knees and handcuffed her. The police patted her down, searched the car and ran a check of her actual license plate number, which revealed their mistake. They removed the handcuffs but held her while they finished their paperwork. Green said she was in cuffs for as long as 10 minutes.

Because the license-plate scanner was known to make occasional errors, the court said, it was common police practice – but not a formal policy – to visually confirm the plate numbers before relying on the scanner’s information.

That practice wasn’t followed in this case, the court said, and a jury could conclude that Kim acted unreasonably in pulling Green over. Jurors could also find that Green posed no threat to the officers and that they used excessive force by ordering her to her knees and training their guns on her, the court said.

[The judges also criticized the officers’ actions because Green was “visibly unthreatening” after being removed from her vehicle.  “During a portion of the time that the officers pointed their weapons at her, Green was handcuffed and secured; moreover, she weighed 250 pounds and was barely able to rise from her knees without assistance,” they wrote.]

Gabriel Zitrin, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said the office was disappointed by the ruling but was prepared to take the case to trial.

 

Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from the San Francisco Chronicle. Visit the website at SFGate .com.)

Questions

1. Describe the incident with police in March 2009 that led California resident Denise Green to sue the San Francisco police department in 2009.

2. For what reasons did Ms. Green bring a lawsuit against the police department in 2009?

3. Why did a judge dismiss Ms. Green’s lawsuit against the San Francisco police department at that time?

4. Ms. Green appealed the decision and this week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that she is able to go forward with her lawsuit. What facts were not taken into consideration at that time that have caused the appeals court to allow Ms. Green to sue the police? What points did the judges make in their decision? Be specific.

5. What do you think: the police made an honest mistake? they were just doing their jobs? from their experience, car thieves are usually armed so they were just following proper procedure to secure the safety of the officers? the fault lies with the administration at the police department who knew their officers were using unreliable equipment but did nothing about it? Ms. Green is blowing things out of proportion? the officers used extremely poor judgement? Ms. Green deserves compensation for the treatment she received? … Explain your answer.


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Background

License Plate Readers: Typically, LPRs can read 60 license plates per second and match observed plates against a “hot list” of wanted vehicles, stolen cars, or criminal suspects. Today, tens of thousands of LPRs are being used by law enforcement agencies all over the country. Practically every week, local media report on some LPR expansion. And often, the data captured by the LPR  – which plate, when and where it was seen—is kept for weeks, months, or sometimes indefinitely. It can create a major pool of data, leaving the very real possibility for an occasional misread. (from arstechnica.com)


This incident with Ms. Green comes as the number of surveillance cameras, and vehicle mounted cameras in particular, is becoming increasingly relied upon by law enforcement agencies.

Last month in Prairie Village, Kansas, a man named Mark Molner was wrongfully identified as a car thief and boxed in by at least two police vehicles. Molner told the Prairie Village Post that his wife looked on from another vehicle as an officer walked up to his BMW with a weapon drawn.

“He did not point it at me, but it was definitely out of the holster,” Molner said of the gun. “I am guessing that he saw the shock and horror on my face, and realized that I was unlikely to make a scene.” [Molner, a local lawyer, said he isn’t planning on pursuing any action against the PVPD, even though he questions the agency’s behavior.] (from the SFGate article above)

Privacy advocates have admitted concern not only with the number of cameras, but with the data they record. The same camera that records a license plate number also tracks the time, date and location while storing that information. Different police agencies keep the data stored for different amounts of time, whether it be days, weeks, or years.

Two years ago a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter filed a request for his own license plate data records under the state’s open records law. The Minneapolis Police Department turned over an extensive list of dates and times indicating that on any given day over the course of a year the reporter’s car may have been filmed seven times.

“The technology that would make ‘1984’ possible in real life exists now,” Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union, told the paper. “But the infrastructure to protect individuals’ privacies and rights doesn’t exist, particularly on the legislative and judicial side.” (from Russia Today, RT.com)