Use of License Plate Reader Data in Criminal Case Debated in California Appeal

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a case testing the right of law enforcement to track people’s location history and movements through license plate reader data, lawyers urged a California appeals court panel Thursday to deem the practice unconstitutional.

(AP Photo/Sang Tan)

“It’s a warrantless search of a database that includes private and sensitive information about people,” said Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, speaking after a court hearing Thursday.

Lynch and defense lawyer Walter Pyle argued that evidence obtained from an Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) database should have been suppressed, and that its use as evidence in a criminal trial led a jury to convict a man on charges of shooting a gun at an occupied vehicle in a fit of road rage.

Joaquin Gonzales was accused of firing a gun at a white Nissan after a near-collision close to a freeway exit in Hayward on July 3, 2015. The defense claims neither the Nissan driver nor a witness in another car could identify Gonzales as the person driving the Buick from which the bullet was fired.

The prosecution used information from an ALRP database to show Gonzales had changed the license plate on his Buick the same day as the shooting incident, contradicting testimony he gave at trial.

The data used in Gonzales’ case came from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, which collects license plate data from 50 law enforcement agencies and stores the data for up to a year. The data is generated by license plate readers fixed at intersections and on police cars that automatically record and retain dates, times and locations for every license plate encountered.

Gonzales’ defense maintains the use of that data violated their client’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Lynch and Pyle cited the Supreme Court’s June 2018 decision in Carpenter v. United States, which held that because Americans have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to cellphone location data, police must get a warrant to obtain that information.

The state of California says that reasoning does not apply to ALPR data because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for a license plate.

“Querying a database containing lawfully obtained information does not trigger a separate analysis under the Fourth Amendment,” California Deputy Attorney General Melissa Meth wrote in an opposition brief.

The state also argues that even if the use of ALPR data was unconstitutional, its introduction as evidence would not have affected the outcome of Gonzales’ case and therefore it should be deemed a “harmless error.”

The state says there was already evidence showing Gonzales switched his license plates on the same day as the shooting. A witness took a video of the license plate during the “road rage” incident on July 3, and a police officer found that same license plate, which was reported stolen, in Gonzales’ closet during a search later that day.

First Appellate District Justice Henry Needham appeared to agree with the state’s perspective that excluding that evidence would not have changed the jury’s verdict.

“If he takes the reader out, there’s more than enough,” Needham said during oral arguments Thursday.

Lynch replied the data was used to portray Gonzales as a liar because he testified he changed the license plate several days after the shooting took place. She said the prosecution would not have introduced that evidence if it wasn’t considered important.

“Wasn’t the evidence that he was lying pretty overwhelming,” Justice Mark Simons asked, referring to the discovery of a “stolen” license plate in Gonzales’ closet.

Justice Gordon Burns joined Needham and Simons on the panel.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Lynch warned that all Americans should be concerned about law enforcement collecting data on people’s locations and movements without a warrant.

“I think we should all care that the government is surveilling us without our knowledge,” Lynch said.

In June, state lawmakers launched an audit on the use of license plate readers by police at the urging of civil liberties groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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