Academic journal article Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal

Mobile Data Terminals and Random License Plate Checks: The Need for Uniform Guidelines and a Reasonable Suspicion Requirement

Academic journal article Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal

Mobile Data Terminals and Random License Plate Checks: The Need for Uniform Guidelines and a Reasonable Suspicion Requirement

Article excerpt


Imagine that you are driving home from work when you notice in your rear view mirror that a state trooper is following you in his squad car. You observe the trooper looking down intermittently as if writing. After approximately five minutes, the squad car's emergency lights and siren are activated. Shortly thereafter, the trooper signals you to pull over. Sitting in your car, you try to think of possible reasons for the stop: you were not speeding; you are wearing your seatbelt; your lights are on; and your license and registration were renewed in a timely manner.

The trooper walks to your car and asks for your vehicle identification materials; embarrassed and confused, you ask why he pulled you over. You are told that your license plate number was "punched into" the squad car's computer and the search revealed that your driver's license was suspended. You explain that you recently renewed your license and that there must be some mistake. You ask the officer why he conducted the license plate search absent a traffic violation. The trooper confidently informs you that he does not need a reason to run computer searches. Annoyed at your questions, the officer orders you to exit the vehicle, pats you down, searches your car and arrests you, while your car is impounded for driving with a suspended license.

At the police station, your attorney discovers that the officer was assigned to routine patrol; his assignment was to randomly check license plate numbers of vehicles that came within his view. Your attorney discovers that your incident was one of only two computer searches conducted by the police officer during his entire eight-hour shift.

The police eventually determine that your license was valid and dismiss the charges against you. However, you spent the night in jail, you paid $100 to retrieve your impounded car and a few hundred dollars in legal fees.

The foregoing scenario is only one example of a permissible use of computers by police to facilitate traffic stops. Although computers can aid in law enforcement, the unrestricted use of computers by the police threatens citizens' individual privacy. The ability of law enforcement to randomly conduct computer searches potentially subjects every citizen to the whim of police officers in the field. The absence of a "reasonable suspicion" requirement and the lack of uniform guidelines governing computer searches of license plate numbers is tantamount to the random, suspicionless seizure the United States Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Delaware v. Prouse.(1)

Computer technology profoundly influences the way police agencies are enforcing the law. When the police use computer technology objectively and fairly to further law enforcement goals, this technology can be an efficient crime-fighting machine. Currently, however, there are no uniform guidelines and procedures governing the use of these technological advances in police departments throughout the country. Consequently, private citizens have enjoyed little, if any, protection from arbitrary and capricious use of computer technology by the police to conduct traffic stops.(2)

These concerns have received national media coverage. For example, a New York Times article(3) discussed the debate unfolding in the courts over the new generation of weapons used by law enforcement in the war on crime. Specifically, the article addressed Mobile Data Terminals ("MDTS"),(4) a type of portable computer. In that article, Professor Wayne LaFave(5) voiced his concern about privacy issues raised by the expanding governmental use of computer technology.(6) Professor LaFave cautioned that Fourth Amendment(7) rules governing the police should be reexamined given law enforcement's current unlimited access to computer technology.(8)

Section II of this note begins by explaining the advent of MDTs and provides a basic foundation for understanding wireless communications which serve as the basis for MDT technology. …

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