Constitutional Law

City faces suit over police stop based on license-plate reader error

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As law enforcement agencies throughout the country move toward a world in which, it appears, government cameras, license-plate readers, public records and facial recognition technology will be combined with cellphone records to identify criminals before officers even see them, a California woman’s case serves as a reminder that old-fashioned police work can still be critical to an investigation.

Pulled over, held at gunpoint and handcuffed by San Francisco police in March 2009, Denise Green had no idea why she was being treated like a criminal. But a conversation between officers soon enlightened her, reports the Center for Investigative Reporting.

“It’s not a seven?” one asked. “No, three five zero,” another answered. A license-plate reader had misread the plate on her 1992 Lexus, and police thought it was stolen.

Green, who said she was terrified during the incident, had to get counseling afterward and missed several weeks of work as a driver for the municipal transit system, according to her lawyer, Michael Haddad.

She sued the city, alleging excessive force and wrongful detention, only to see the suit thrown out by a federal judge who said the officers involved had made a good-faith mistake.

But a three-judge panel from the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month reversed the trial court and reinstated Green’s suit, finding that whether the city and its officers had violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure was a question for the jury to decide. A San Francisco Chronicle story discusses the unanimous opinion (PDF).

Haddad said license-plate readers can be wrong as much as 8 percent of the time. The officers involved in Green’s traffic stop did not confirm the plate number with a police dispatcher before pulling her over, the Center for Investigative Reporting said.

San Francisco officials declined. to comment when contacted by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Related coverage: “Where were you yesterday? Uncle Sam may soon know: Feds plan national license-plate tracking system” “Plan to create a national license-plate tracking database is canceled by feds, at least for now” “Proposed California bill would restrict license-plate scanning” “Mistakenly arrested again, at court hearing in earlier mistaken-arrest case, woman plans to sue”

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