Jason Perlow: License Plate Fugitive

Jason Perlow: License Plate Fugitive

Summary: Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) a technology originally developed in England, is now being deployed to police vehicles in the United States.

TOPICS: Security

So last night, my wife and I made a one hour driving trip from our home in Western Broward County, Florida, to Singer Island, in order to pick up some furniture we found on Craigslist.

To get to Singer Island, which is a upscale community with mostly vacation homes, you have to pass through the town of Riviera Beach, which is part of the city of West Palm Beach.

Riviera Beach is one of the more unsavory areas of Palm Beach County, and it has a fair share of police activity. I was was driving normally, well within the speed limit, when I heard the siren and saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser in my rear view mirror directly behind me.

I was being pulled over.

My wife looked over at me. "Did you go through a light? Were you driving too fast?" I answered no.

I slowed down and turned into a nearby parking lot and stopped the car. Two police vehicles pulled up.

An officer got out of his car and walked up to my driver's seat window. He looked tense, agitated. "License and registration, please." I could see that he had his hand by his pistol. I fumbled for my wallet and my wife handed me the registration which was in the glove compartment.

"The car is newly registered and my Florida driver's license is brand new, I just got it last week. We moved here from New Jersey two weeks ago."

Officer Hardass took my paperwork and went back to his car. His buddy was kibitzing with my wife about the car on the passenger side, boasting about how he bought one just like it recently and got a cop discount.

Hardass came back and looked at me sternly. "Is this your vehicle, Sir?"

What the hell does he mean is this my vehicle? Of course it's my vehicle.

"Yes, it's my car, I bought it in New York and drove it down here and registered it. Can't you see on the paperwork and on your computer that it's my car?"

"The vehicle is coming up as with an unassigned tag. It belongs to a 1990 Mercedes-Benz. You're driving a 2012 Volkswagen Passat."

I smacked myself on the head. "Officer, I must have switched the tags on the two cars when I put the plates on. The Mercedes is at home, an hour from here. I'm sorry about that."

Hardass went back to his car to check his computer again, and came right back. "Well, you do appear to own both cars. However, driving with an unassigned tag is a criminal offense, and if I wanted to, I could arrest you right now and drag you downtown and throw you in jail."

"But you're not gonna do that, right?"

"No, I'm going to let you off with a warning and it's going on your record for driving with an unassigned tag. You're not going to get a ticket or pay a fine. But you'd better take care of this immediately."

Hardass went back to his car. His buddy, officer Kibbitz, who was chatting with my wife, looked over towards me.

"Hey, awesome car dude. Sorry we pulled you over, but we had a homicide this evening and everyone's kind of on edge."

"Well why did you pull me over? Did the vehicle look suspicious?"

"Oh, we don't profile or descriminate. The car scanned you and it threw up an alert for having a mismatched plate."

"What do you mean the car scanned me? It can do it by itself?"

"Yes, it's a new system called Automatic License Plate Recognition. They developed it in England and most states use it in toll plazas, parking lots and stuff like that. We now have them on police cars, as do a few other states."

"Wow... and it can tell the difference between a Volkswagen and a Mercedes?"


Have you had a run-in with the law because of Automatic License Plate Recognition? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topic: Security


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Ya gotta love jerk cops

    And ya gotta love ZDNets asinine spam algorithm even more.
    • Jerk cop?

      What a jerk for pulling someone over driving a car that doesn't match the license plate and after doing some due diligence, letting the driver off with a warning.

      Next time your car gets stolen and the thieves switch the license plate, will you think the cop that pulled them over was a jerk?
      • Who cares, todd's bottom

        The insurance will pay for it anyway. A good excuse to get a new vehicle.
  • great local news report!

    this one doesn't even bother with some toss-off "this new system is bad-ass at catching bad guys, but some critics worry about encroachments into privacy. back to you, mike."
  • Works in the UK - not so sure in the USA

    I can see the USA is going to have headaches with this. In the UK a cars' number plate is issued when the vehicle is first used on the road and (almost) never changes thereafter so the scenario you describe would never happen. It's a great system in that it just pings up a warning on a screen in a police car without the officers having to do anything and it's caught countless drug dealers since once a vehicle has been involved in a drug bust it's registered as such on a police database and the car pings up as a 'vehicle of interest' everytime a police car spots it. Also it cross references the car to the registered keeper (ie. the owner) and pings if no details of insurance or road tax are found.

    Not sure how this works when you have to change licence plates every year though?
    • Every state is different

      Every state is different in how they handle license plates, but I don't think any state changes the plates yearly.
    • Not in CA

      I'm not sure what you're talking about, Andy. The change to Jason's plates was due to having moved to a different state. Each state issues their own plates but most states cooperate in exchanging data on things like stolen vehicles.

      FWIW, I've had the same CA plates for over twenty years, across four different cars. It's a personalized plate, so I had it transferred each time I changed cars.
      • Well you learn something new every day :)

        Thanks for explaining guys.
        • renew not change

          As I understand it, you pay a license registration fee every year, much like you do in the UK, but the plates don't change. If you move states you have 30 days to register the car in the new state and get new plates.

          ALPRS also useful for toll roads (it polices the congestion charge zone in London) and finding your car in car parks (Heathrow terminal 5 long stay car park; present your ticket to the machine and it tells you where you're parked by licence plate recognition).
  • Welcome

    to the Homeland Security Nanny State.
    Be prepared to show your papers in case the automated systems fail. Rights be damned - it's for the children.
  • Good to know

    Now those guys who lift plates / tags will be sure to take them from the same vehicle model.

    Wonder when they will tie this into the vehicle GPS?
  • Hopefully they build some controls into it...

    Hopefully, scans don't just show the cops the name and personal info of every "innocent" car that comes into sight of the camera. Why? Well that plays well into harrassment, stalking, etc.

    I read an article about some state police department where the cops were using the drivers license database to lookup an attractive female officer. In that state, the lookup was only to be used for conducting official police dept business. However, an audit of activity found the woman's record was viewed/searched thousands of times in a brief period. And this was one of their fellow officers. Now, if a bunch of cops will break policy to look at a pretty un-risque driver's license pic of a fellow cop, I imagine any license plate registered to a woman with an attractive driver's license pic is going to be pulled over, only to be "done the favor" of being let go with a warning.
    • Datalanche

      That would be hugely impractical because of the overwhelming amount of data it would produce. You want to improve the cops ability to spot a vehicle that has been stolen or involved in a crime, not throw out trivia about every car they drive by. A patrol car could easily pass thousands of cars in a single shift. The idea is to help narrow the search, not make it worse.
  • It's not the cops

    you guys have to worry about, whether you trust them or not they have the info already. What you haven't seen yet is where the database behind this tech is licenced out to anyone that pays for it. In the UK, we have car parks that can issue tickets through the mail as they've caught your registration on a camera. You don't realise so don't take photo's of signs/locations etc. Where does the licencing end, that's your worry!
    Little Old Man
    • There've been ways around it

      • I've yet to see

        a spray that works conclusively and I'm sure when there is one, legislation will be updated.
        Most sprays work against camera flashes from what I've seen. This won't be any use against character recognition systems.
        Little Old Man
        • You don't see enough

          The sprays are a big enough threat that some states have already made them illegal. Not that they can be seen or visibly detected, anyway.

          As far as character recognition systems go, somebody will come up with a way eventually. They always do.
  • Sounds like a really complicated way of accomplishing that goal

    "I imagine any license plate registered to a woman with an attractive driver's license pic is going to be pulled over"

    Hopefully cops never figure out that they could always just pull up next to the woman's car and, ya know, look at her before deciding to pull her over.
    • The same hold true for the stalker apps

      You know, the ones where it gives all the details on girls that are in the bar based on aggregate social networking info. After all, you could just walk up, ya know, and have a conversation with her to find out about her. But if that app hadn't been pulled, I bet it would be near the top of the app store charts.

      Not to mention, it's a little less obvious to use the in dash system and scanner rather than weaving in and out of traffic to pull up beside a car to get a look.

      It has other ramifications too, beyond the pretty woman angle. How about racial profiling. Cop drives down the road at night, license ID photos flashing on the display, sees the car in front of him is a 22 year old black guy, hispanic, etc. You don't think there are some cops out there where the race of a person might influence whether they pull someone over or not?

      Look, most cops are cops for the right reasons and perform their duties with integrity. But that doesn't eliminate the small group that do abuse their authority. Just like anything else, controls need to be present or it will be abused.
      • If anything, this is an improvement

        ALPR doesn't appear to give the police any new information they didn't have access to before, it only automates what a policeman would have to do manually before. In fact, if ANYTHING, it makes the system less likely to be abused since a computer can't be racist and can't be turned on by pretty women. It can only do what its cold, emotionless programming has told it to do. It can compare the car to the license plate. It can notify you if the license plate has been reported stolen. It can notify you if the registered owner has a warrant. It won't pop up a window saying "HISPANIC DRIVER DETECTED, PULL OVER AND HARRASS THEM IMMEDIATELY". Nope, if a cop wants to do that, they'll have to do it the old fashioned way.

        "But that doesn't eliminate the small group that do abuse their authority."

        I totally agree with you. If you can come up with better examples than you've come up with so far, let's hear them. So far though, you've actually argued against yourself because ALPR won't help with racial profiling and it won't help you pull over attractive women.