Civil Liberties

Sanford Police Using License Plate Scanners to Accuse Drivers of Consorting with Prostitutes

Don't be in the wrong place at the wrong time for too long!


Stock photos about prostitution are absolutely hilarious
Credit: Sergey Pristyazhnyuk |

If you work the night shift in Sanford, Florida, and you're picking up a workmate for a carpool, you better hope he or she doesn't live in the wrong neighborhood. Police might take note of your idling car and send you a letter accusing you of trying to pay women for sex. The Orlando Sentinel reports that the Sanford Police Department has decided to use its license-plate readers to stalk drivers they think may be Johns:

Starting this week, the Sanford Police Department will send "Dear John" letters to registered owners of vehicles spotted lingering in areas known for prostitution.

The letters, which include a photograph of the vehicle and a close-up of the license plate, remind the recipient of the dangers associated with prostitution, including sexually transmitted diseases and other criminal activity.

Police officials said they hope the program will deter and reduce the demand for prostitution, "by stripping away the anonymity of the exchange."

Sanford police said Monday that letters will only be generated when an officer is confident the driver is circling the block looking for a prostitute, and not, for example, driving around lost.

Oh, well, as long as the police officer is confident, then. Who could possibly have any concerns about the judgment of the Sanford Police Department?

It falls upon a defense attorney to point out the kind of problems the police department can get itself into for incorrectly deciding some guy in his car is a John without actually catching him in the act of solicitation:

Orlando criminal-defense attorney Richard Hornsby said Sanford police are "likely to expose themselves to civil-liberty complaints should they send these notices to innocent persons and inadvertently cause marital disruption."

"If they have sufficient evidence to believe a person is 'not lost but, in fact, circling the block looking for a prostitute,' then they have a sufficient basis to make an investigative detention for the crime of solicitation of prostitution," Hornsby said.

Hornsby's response assumes police should have the authority to cause "marital disruption" when men actually are consorting with prostitutes, as if it's any of their business. These letters are obviously bound (and probably intended) to be opened by others in the household. Attempting to humiliate men (and their families as a consequence) for paying for sex is not a new tactic for vice-obsessed police officers. Sending out potentially disruptive letters to households on the basis of a car's location is a new low in the pursuit of the lowest of low-hanging criminal fruit. Sanford is not, unfortunately, the pioneer. The Orlando Sentinel notes that similar tactics are being used in Baltimore and Oakland, Calif.

Read more of Reason's coverage of license plate cameras here.