Civil Liberties

L.A. City Council Wants to Send You A Letter When Its License-Plate Readers See Your Car in Certain Neighborhoods

Reckless policy proposed as an anti-prostitution measure.


The Los Angeles City Council thinks it would be a good idea to use license plate readers to send automated letters to people whose cars are seen by cameras in areas they believe to be used to solicit prostitution. These helpful prospective letters would warn the recipient that, well, the city knows they, or someone with access to their car, has driven or parked their cars in parts of the city where the city believes people often go to solicit prostitutes.

In other words, freely traveling in a part of the city that the city has some generalized suspicion about should be enough for the city to use your tax money to be the worst sort of backfence neighborhood busybody and try to ruin your relationship(s).

The Council last week officially asked the city attorney for advice on that proposal it would like to implement. The idea was the brainchild of  San Fernando Valley Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who really wants to stamp out prostitution, or so she keeps saying.

From an Associated Press report in the Orange County Register:

The letters would be written to discourage those who were soliciting prostitutes from returning to the area while posing no harm to those who were there for legitimate reasons, Councilwoman Nury Martinez said.

"If you aren't soliciting, you have no reason to worry about finding one of these letters in your mailbox," she said.

This councilwoman has zero knowledge about the dynamics of human marriage or romantic relationships if she believes that nonsense for a second.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, already in an ongoing lawsuit against the LAPD and L.A. County sheriff over its license plate reader collection practices, thinks it's a terrible idea, as the Los Angeles Daily News reports. J.D. Tuccille reported on that lawsuit here back in 2014.

Nick Selby with an essay posted at has a pretty good compendium of reasons why the city attorney should say please forget this horrible idea back to the Council, even though he's cool with license plate readers in law enforcement in general:

As a law enforcement technologist, and a working police detective, I generally support the use of license plate readers…

[But this L.A. proposed] scheme makes, literally, a state issue out of legal travel to arbitrary places deemed by some?—?but not by a court, and without due process?—?to be "related" to crime in general, not to any specific crime.

There isn't "potential" for abuse here, this is a legislated abuse of technology that is already controversial when it's used by police for the purpose of seeking stolen vehicles, tracking down fugitives and solving specific crimes.

The City Council and Ms. Martinez seek to "automate" this process of reasonable suspicion (reducing it to mere presence at a certain place), and deploy it on a massive scale….they seek to use municipal funds to take action against those guilty of nothing other than traveling legally on city streets, then access the state-funded Department of Motor Vehicle registration records to resolve the owner data, then use municipal moneys to write, package and pay the United States Postal Service to deliver a letter that is at best a physical manifestation of the worst kind of Digital McCarthyism….

Oh, and what happens to those records once they are committed to paper? As letters sent by the District Attorney or City Council, they would be rightly subject to Freedom of Information Laws. And mandatory retention periods that exceed those of automated license plate data, even though no investigation has been consummated.

Which means that, under Councilwoman Martinez' scheme, anyone will be able to get a list of all vehicles driving in certain parts of town merely by requesting "all 'John' letters sent" between a date range.

Far from serving as, in the words of one proponent, a private "wake-up call," these letters will surely be the basis of insurance, medical, employment and other decisions, and such a list can be re-sold to public records companies, advertising mailing list companies…  who in their right mind would do business at any company located in that area? The list of unintended consequences is long.

Scott Shackford wrote back in 2013 about Sanford, Florida's, adoption of the same crummy, intrusive idea. A 2012 National Institute of Justice report on the pernicious practice's use nationally.