License Plate Cameras

Man Rousted at Gunpoint After License Plate Scanner Misreads Plate

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SWAT
U.S. Government

One of the downsides of all of the new gee-whiz identification technology law enforcement is adopting (usually with hefty federal subsidies) is that it never works quite as well as advertised. The FBI touts facial recognition software as the bad guy-tagging tool of the future, but you have to dig through documents to discover that the feds consider a false positive rate of 20 percent to be perfectly acceptable.

We don't really know what the false positive rate for license plate scanners is, but we do know it has one. At least, Mark Molner, a Prairie Village, Kansas, attorney knows it, because a scanner misread his BMW's license plate for that of a stolen Oldsmobile plate, and the next thing he knew, cops with guns in hand had him surrounded and wanted to know his business.

Writes Jay Senter at the Prairie Village Post:

Mark Molner, whose law office is just north of the intersection of 75th Street and State Line Road, was driving back from a sonographer's appointment with his wife around 5:15 p.m. Monday when a Prairie Village police car pulled up behind him.

"As there were tons of cars around me, I was not certain who they were pulling over, but as I had been at the light some time, I did not think that I had had the opportunity to do anything to interest the officers, so when traffic permitted, I pulled forward with it, slowly," Molner said. "At that time, the cruiser darted in front of me and attempted to pin me by parking diagonally across both lanes of traffic, and the motorcycle took up a place directly behind me."

As one of the officers approached Molner's car, Molner noticed that he had his gun out.

"He did not point it at me, but it was definitely out of the holster," he said. "I am guessing that he saw the shock and horror on my face, and realized that I was unlikely to make (more of) a scene."

After a few moments of conferring with the other officer on the scene, the policeman returned to Molner's window and told him that a license plate scanner mounted on his police unit had thrown off an alert that Molner was in a stolen vehicle. As it turned out, though, the license scanner mounted on the car had misread a "7" on Molner's license plate as a "2." The alert the officer received was related to a stolen Oldsmobile. Molner was driving a black BMW. Molner's wife, who is four months pregnant, watched the incident unfolding from her car in the parking lot of Molner's office.

Since Molner's wife wasn't beaten and no dogs were killed, this incident marked an unusual exercise of restraint by the police officers. The attorney, though, wants to know why officers had their guns drawn, given that they weren't sure they had the right car or guy—and didn't as it turned out.

Which is another downside of all of the new gee-whiz identification technology law enforcement is adopting. It inevitably means more encounters between police and the public. Given law enforcement's increasingly militarized approach to the world, that usually involves an inclination to poke a boot or a bullet into somebody and then ask questions later.

Which is always a problem, but especially when your gee whiz techology screams "j'accuse" at the wrong damned person a large percentage of the time.

NEXT: Brian Doherty on Economists' Failures To Help the Poor

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  1. The attorney, though, wants to know why officers had their guns drawn…

    An attorney. Ouch. Let’s hope it’s one of the connected kind that can get higher-ups to demand answers.

    1. What kind of ‘answers’ are you expecting? Heroic first responders got to go home safely that night. Nothing else matters.

      1. This raises an important point–why do they bother getting close to the perpetrator? Why not simply take him out at a distance?

        1. And let all those DHS-surplus automatic weapons and body armor purchased with DHS grants go to waste?

          Besides, we’re still years away from the crime-free utopia that armed police drones will surely usher in.

            1. Questioning Drone Dredd carries a 5 year sentence in the isocubes, citizen.

        2. That might work to take out the suspect, but it’s not going to instill abject fear in the rest of the populus. And that’s at least half of their goal every time that they take out their toys, isn’t it?

          1. Where they go wrong is in explaining the action. Random, unexplained terror works better.

            1. “State personnel privacy laws prevent the department from further commenting on the incident, which remains under investigation.”

      2. I hope you get to experience those “first respondents” in your home at 3 am and they shoot your dog and maybe even you or a family member.(pft)

    2. DESTROYER LAWYER POWERS: ACTIVATE

      Seriously. Use those powers for some fucking good.

  2. Police department spokesman Capt. Wes Lovett said the scanner gave the officer the alert as he was traveling westbound at Roe Avenue on 75th Street and Molner was traveling eastbound. The officer had to turn around to catch up to Molner’s car, and it took him until Belinder Avenue to do so.

    “Due to rush hour traffic, he was unable to compare the two tags prior to activating a traffic stop,” Lovett said. “What he did know is that the tag from the [license plate reader] came back to an Oldsmobile, however, that doesn’t mean the tag isn’t stolen. The BMW could be stolen or it could have simply been a switched tag.”

    This doesn’t make sense. To pull the guy over, you would’ve had to have been right behind him, which means you would’ve had to be looking directly at the plate, and would have to have seen it didn’t match, right? Am I missing something?

    1. The illiteracy of the cop that pulled him over.

    2. The cop said it threw an alert, he likely didn’t even read the plate until after the guy was pulled over.

      1. And let me be clear, I’m NOT making excuses for these dirtbags, I just think this is likely what happened. They should still read the damn plate.

    3. To pull the guy over, you would’ve had to have been right behind him, which means you would’ve had to be looking directly at the plate

      “…I was not certain who they were pulling over, but as I had been at the light some time

      Not only that, he was right behind him at a fucking stop light! I can understand somewhat not being able to read the plate while moving. I have problems with that myself, but seriously? You’re stopped at a light, the idiot cop could have read the plate if he hadn’t been a moron with a massive AUTHORITAY boner. All that blood rushing to his pecker made it hard to think.

  3. “As it turned out, though, the license scanner mounted on the car had misread a “7” on Molner’s license plate as a “2.” The alert the officer received was related to a stolen Oldsmobile. Molner was driving a black BMW.”

    So they could clearly see they had the wrong make, model, tag, color, everything, and they still had to pull him over to confirm that he wasn’t what shapeshifting the car or some shit?

    Or maybe they thought he had taken the stolen Olds tags and put them on a what stolen BMW?

    None of this shit makes any sense at all, but maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be (Brazil).

    1. Or maybe the BMW sent visions of asset forfeiture dancing in the cop’s head.

      1. Or the Oldsmobile realized that it was actually a trans-BMW the whole time.

        1. heh heh

    2. Well at least they didn’t shoot it up ala the two little ladies in a totally differnt truck who were mistaken for Dorner.

      Speaking of which, think of the lulz you could have if you had the same license plate (except a 7 instead of a 2) of Dorner’s old car!

      Holy Shit! Dorner’s come back from the dead and he’s coming right at me!!!!

  4. Which is another downside of all of the new gee-whiz identification technology law enforcement is adopting. It inevitably means more encounters between police and the public. Given law enforcement’s increasingly militarized approach to the world, that usually involves an inclination to poke a boot or a bullet into somebody and then ask questions later.

    Not if it gets people to realize that cops aren’t heros and that the entertainment media portrayal of them is complete bullshit.

  5. “He did not point it at me, but it was definitely out of the holster,” he said. “I am guessing that he saw the shock and horror on my face, and realized that I was unlikely to make (more of) a scene.”

    More likely, that look of shock and horror gave the cop such a boner he was momentarily disoriented.

  6. I realize this makes me a bad person, but there are days when I quite literally hope one of my government-fellating acquaintances or a family member gets snatched up by the cops, so I can say, “I told you so.”

  7. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, a license plate scanner and good old-fashioned police work helped catch a man who was regularly shooting motorists on the freeway.

    I don’t like the advancing police state any more than the next guy, but demonizing relatively benign or beneficial actions does little to dispel the real threat.

    The gun was removed from it’s holster but never raised or pointed. While I certainly cede that the stop was unnecessary/excessive, I’ve seen greater and more dangerous lapses in judgement on the range and amongst hunters in the field.

    This article should’ve better contrasted this mistake and the relative caution demonstrated relative to any of a dozen careless and brazen police shootings, beatings, and abuses of authority in recent history.

    1. So, like the Austin police chief, you’re saying this guy should just move on and feel lucky that he wasn’t raped and beaten?

      1. Kinda to my point, I’ve seen the ‘Plate Scanner Made Mistake Causing Guns To Be Readied!’ story from several outlets but I didn’t hear the Austin Police Chief say that.

        That, IMO, is far more egregious than an traffic cop unholstering his weapon in a mistaken stop.

        1. Apparently you don’t understand the problem with this behavior, and think it has something to do with a cop “unholstering his weapon in a mistaken stop.”

  8. And the world takes one more step closer to Gilliam’s Brazil.

    “The machine doesn’t make mistakes, civilian.”

  9. Whops! Our bad.

    IS your alt-text a cry for help in the editing department or a veiled attack on our fine Italian-American friends?

    Or both?

    1. The alt-text scanning software made a mistake and the editing department all drew on each other at once. They’re still cleaning up the mess.

      1. Polish firing squad? I didn’t know we employed proggies in the Reason editing department.

        1. No shots were fired. Guns were drawn and everyone shit their pants.

  10. Come to New Hampshire, the only state where police utilization of license plate scanners is illegal and their attempts to get them were recently rejected.

    1. That’s only until enough Massholes flood the state to make it happen. Give it two years, and then you can embrace the suck like the rest of us.

  11. Which is always a problem, but especially when your gee whiz techology screams “j’accuse” at the wrong damned person a large percentage of the time.

    As far as I’m concerned, they “large percentage of time” is hovering around 100% until they start citing actual examples of it being used to solve actual crimes. And you know it would be in the news if their new toys actually solved crimes.

  12. Not on the same level, but I was recently sent a ticket for my car not paying the bridge toll in San Francisco. My car is in New York. How often does the technology malfunction and send out random tickets and do these malfunctions just happen to correspond to budget shortfalls?

    1. Not sure. I’ve probably crossed the Bay Bridge without paying a toll at least a dozen times and I’ve never once received a ticket in the mail and neither have the rental car companies charged my credit cards on the occasions I was driving a rental.

      Of course, I’m a white male and maybe that’s just part of my privilege.

      1. tl;dr: Mand13 got sloopy’s ticket.

        I’ve had my SunPass (Florida EZPass) charged before for parts of the state I wasn’t anywhere near. When you go through the SunPass lanes without one, it checks your license plate; if it’s in the database, it charges your SunPass, otherwise it sends you a ticket or a toll, depending on where you are.

        1. That’s what Mand13 gets for having the license plate “FUQ POGS”.

          1. What do you have against pogs? Are you just upset that you lost all of yours because you didn’t have a super sweet slammer guaranteed to defeat everyone you played against?

    2. If I were a cynical city tax guy, I’d say “OK, send out some tickets to innocent people, if they fuss say it was a mistake and cancel the ticket, but at least some of them will mail in the fine just to avoid the hassle.”

  13. And, of course, the “procedure” in such a circumstance is not to say, “Hey, look. the plate on the car doesn’t match,” turn the lights off, and drive away. Because there was this one time when the cops had The Perp right in their hands, and the bastard slipped right through their fingers!

    NEVER PASS UP A CHANCE TO ROUST A SKELL!

  14. I think this may have actually have happened to me recently. I got pulled over by a cop for no apparent reason, and then he came up to my window (flashlight in my eyes) and told me, “Sorry sir, I misread your license plate” and then left.

    I was kinda “what the hell was that” afterwards.

  15. Personally I have no problems with license plate scanners or facial recognition, but it’s only reasonable to use them if they are followed up by a human evaluating the images and their supposed matches for reasonableness *before* any action is taken. In this case, they would have seen a) the mismatch in the plate and b) the mismatch in the car.

    1. reasonableness

      This word does not mean to them what you and I think it does.

      The police are not your friend any longer. They may have been at one time and there are still decent people as cops, but Officer Friendly has been militarized out of the LEO community.

  16. Come to New Hampshire, the only state where police utilization of license plate scanners is illegal and their attempts to get them were recently rejected.

    If Fearless Fosdick were here, he’d patiently explain to you deranged juvenile bigorati that this caused rejoicing among the New Hampshire police, because they only (reluctantly) follow the laws passed by the legislators, and they would Never, Ever actively lobby for new or expanded powers to fuck with the civilians.

    hth

    1. He’d also tell you that unless the police officers in NH were specifically trained to not use a license plate scanner then they couldn’t be held personally accountable for using them.

      He’d further say the same applied to ramming them head-first into a brick wall even though you did not suspect them of a specific crime.

  17. Due to rush hour traffic, he was unable to compare the two tags prior to activating a traffic stop,” Lovett said.

    Emphasis added. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” “Because it’s rush hour?”

  18. If you don’t have anything to hide, you have nothing to worry about.

    Unless you’re worried about your dog, but if you don’t have a dog, you have nothing to worry about.

  19. then he came up to my window (flashlight in my eyes) and told me, “Sorry sir, I misread your license plate” and then left.

    Good thing you weren’t an Asian lady delivering newspapers.

    1. If he was an Asian lady, the cop would have asked him why he ran into another car.

      1. RIGHT FUCKING THERE.

        A cop drawing a gun without pointing it is crucifiable offense but actual cops actually gunning down an innocent woman and endangering civilians in the neighborhood in an unbelievable case of mistaken identity is a joke?

        This is why I have a “WTH?” attitude about this article/thread.

        1. I would think a key issue is the fact that technology used to justify restrictions on liberty is prone to errors by confusing 2 and 7.

          1. Where’s the restriction on liberty? The cops were allowed to pull you over for misreading your license plate before.

        2. You must be new, or would realize that the vast majority of posters here took that shooting more seriously than the rest of the country.

          1. Who denies that the vast majority of posters etc.

            1. Oh, I see him, up there.

        3. No, the joke I was making was that an Asian lady would likely have run into somebody else before the cop even showed up and the conversation would inevitably start by him asking her why she ran into somebody. Asian women are horrible drivers.

          That said, I was a pretty vocal advocate for criminally charging those cops for shooting those two Hispanic women.

        4. Not to mention that I might be the last person in the fucking world that deserves a lecture on nit taking police abuse cases seriously. I probably post more bad cop stories than anybody on here because I do take it fucking seriously and think there isn’t enough of a fuss made about it.

    2. Well, again, shining one of those painfully bright police flashlights in my eyes didn’t really make him seem all that apologetic.

  20. My parents once got a notice from New Jersey that they had failed to pay a toll for some bridge or tunnel. The letter included a picture of a car that was not even close to any they owned with a license plate number that was not even close to any of their cars’ license plate numbers. I think they ignored it. I wonder if they’re still getting demands for money.

  21. Well the upside of the downside is that more encounters between police and the public means more people begin to understand how militarized and fucked up they have become.

  22. This is what the government does. Throws out crap technology without testing it. In the meantime, more reliable private technology is held back from the market over bs regulations.

  23. “Since Molner’s wife wasn’t beaten and no dogs were killed, this incident marked an unusual exercise of restraint by the police officers.” What a stupid remark. Cops certainly make lots of mistakes. At times certain cops abuse their powers. But to think that they go around beating people with nightsticks and shooting dogs is silly. And I’m sure that every negative poster here will dial 911 when they feel threatened.

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