Police Abuse

How Police Drones and License-Plate Readers Threaten Liberty

Law enforcement expands the surveillance state in Virginia.


There's little doubt law-enforcement agencies would be more effective if they could search people's houses and cars at whim. After all, you never know what you might turn up.

Enforcing the law would also be a lot easier if everyone had a microchip implanted in his or her body that sent out a unique signal. Whenever the police needed to find a suspect—or a kidnapping victim—they could simply home in on the beacon and find the person they were looking for.

These seem like fanciful, perhaps even comical, ideas—something out of a sci-fi movie, perhaps. But then, 20 years ago it would have seemed fanciful to suggest the police could record thousands of license plates an hour with special license-plate readers, and thereby gradually build a database tracking the whereabouts of millions of everyday citizens. Most of those citizens will never commit a crime. But some will, and having that data could help the police eliminate some possible suspects and focus on others. Did someone in a red Miata rob a liquor store at Broad and 39th on March 13? Let's see who was in that area during the time in question. Likewise, the government can use drones to provide it with constant surveillance from above.

This year the Virginia General Assembly passed bipartisan legislation restricting the use of such technology without a warrant and limiting how long law-enforcement agencies can retain such data. To the surprise and dismay of many, Gov. Terry McAuliffe made sweeping changes that, says sponsor Chap Petersen, take "a bill that was designed to protect people's civil liberties" and turns it into "one that basically trashes them."

The governor's amendments also managed to do the unlikely: They brought together his opponent in the gubernatorial race, former Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and the head of the state ACLU, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. A few days ago they wrote an op/ed for The Richmond Times-Dispatch taking on the governor and taking apart the arguments from the other side. "If easing crime solving is sufficient cause to violate our privacy," they wrote, "then there is no limit to what law enforcement would be allowed to do—collect our DNA at birth, engage in house to house warrantless searches, gather all of our cell phone records—all of these activities would make it easier to 'solve crimes.' "

Weighing in a few days later, three law-enforcement officials (a sheriff, a chief of police, and a commonwealth's attorney) argued in The Times-Dispatch that the governor's amendments struck the right balance. Among other things, they suggested the original bill could have limited the use of dashcams and body cameras, just as the country is reaching a consensus on the value of such devices in protecting the public from police abuse.

There's something to that. But the argument about striking the right balance has a diabolical logic. As Randolph Bell—president of the First Freedom Center, former U.S. ambassador at large and special envoy for Holocaust issues—put it in a rejoinder: "There will always be ways to make law enforcement more efficient. In fact, as technology advances, there will be more and more of them. The analytical framework through which you view the matter is, in your own words, 'compromise.' Constitutional protections for rights and liberties were intended to be absolute, 'inalienable.' If they are to be compromised on behalf of each technological advance, then they surely will disappear."

That's a point the commonwealth needs to let marinate a bit. The debate over license-plate readers and drones is necessary. So is the debate over body cameras on police officers. And so on. But each of those debates is largely isolated from the others. And although Petersen's original bill restricts the use of "surveillance technology," the discussion has largely ignored other technology over which there has been, so far, very little debate: the Stingray and Hailstorm systems that mimic cellphone towers, allowing officers in a squad car to vacuum up data about all the cellphones in a given radius. Chesterfield County, among other localities, has purchased such equipment.

And while Stingrays and Hailstorms allow government to collect a lot of information about you, that doesn't mean you can get much information about them. Often localities purchasing such devices sign nondisclosure agreements with the manufacturers pledging not to divulge information about the systems—even in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. It's not clear how a private contract can supersede a state statute, but the question is ripe for litigation.

Three years ago the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that tracking a person's movement without a warrant was an unconstitutional search. In that case, the search was made through a physical intrusion: placing a GPS device on the suspect's car. But tracking someone remotely is no different. Virginia law-enforcement agencies have been doing that without a warrant, which is bad enough. But they're also doing it without a reason—and that's an outrage.

NEXT: UPDATED! Chicago Will Pay $5.5 Million in "Reparations" to Victims of Police Torture

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  1. “The analytical framework through which you view the matter is, in your own words, ‘compromise.’ ”

    In any compromise with evil, only evil will profit. -Ayn Rand

    1. Makes perfect sense. And who’s more evil than the political class and their enforcers…

  2. I’m sure this has probably made the rounds. AZ cop intentionally rams armed crazy dude with car. Pretty graphic.


    1. Ouch.

    2. Microaggression.

  3. In a shocking development Aaron Hernandez has been found guilty.

    It’s working out for him, though…. nobody is going to disrespect him to his face in nightclubs anymore.

    1. Why go around getting unlimited tail as a professional football player when you can go to prison and be just another punk?

      1. On the other hand, Warden Hazen is going to have a great tight end next season.

        1. You win the internet today!

  4. How does he have the power to “amend” legislation? Was this some sort of micro-line item veto?

    1. Process wasn’t explained. There is no indication that the bill is now law so maybe it goes back to the legislature now to vote on? Article didn’t indicate “proposed”.

    2. Its called an amendatory veto.

      In theory the purpose is to allow minor changes to the bill. Technical language, and such.

      In Illinois an amendatory veto would send a bill back to the assembly where they would approve of the amendments with 50%+1 vote or override the veto with 2/3rds vote to enact the original bill as passed.

      The sponsor of the bill chooses which course of action to take, but can choose only one course of action, not both. Whichever the sponsor of the bill chooses, if the vote fails, the bill dies.

  5. Whenever the police needed to find a suspect?or a kidnapping victim?they could simply home in on the beacon and find the person they were looking for.

    A scanner and a scalpel will solve that problem.

    1. Dr. Moreau disapproves.

    2. it does right up until legislation is passed requiring chips for basic services, access to public buildings/parks, flight and motor vehicle travel, and voting. Once ubiquity of scanners is reached, absence of a chip will be probable cause.

  6. Today’s cop: You will trust these people at your peril.

  7. Why don’t they just search everyone’s homes, you know, like they do in big prisons. That way anyone caught with any contraband or evidence of a crime can be sent straight to the hole.

  8. I get paid over $87 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I never thought I’d be able to do it but my best friend earns over 10k a month doing this and she convinced me to try. The potential with this is endless. Heres what I’ve been doing,

    ————- http://www.work-cash.com

  9. “There’s little doubt law-enforcement agencies would be more effective if they could search people’s houses and cars at whim.”

    To believe that you first have to believe that law-enforcement agencies are actually all about law enforcement. If you believe that, you are wrong.

    1. Depends, I think,on how one spells “effective”, or perhaps Whose Ox Is Being Gored, Whose Rights are Trashed..

  10. Some people find those pesky Constitutional Rights bothersome too, at least when invoked by others.

  11. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.netjob80.com

  12. Both of our two major political parties believe in “Big Government”. The only thing that they differ in is what that “Big Government” is going to do. And to “whom” is it going to do “it” too…

  13. Yay, another reason for people to hate and distrust the police. I swear it seems like the government is hell bent on making police officers the face of their new security state.

  14. Yay, another reason for people to hate and distrust the police. I swear it seems like the government is hell bent on making police officers the face of their new security state.

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