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Hi-Tech Traffic Enforcement in DC

by | Mar 28, 2011

Thanks to a public safety grant, Washington, DC Police cruisers are being outfitted with new hi-tech automatic license plate readers (ALPRs).  These devices, like the Mobile Plate Hunter-900 used by MPD, allow a parked or moving police car to constantly scan the license plates of all vehicles around them.  The system photographs the plate, reads the number, runs it though a national crime database and displays the results on the officer’s car-mounted laptop computer. The system may be able immediately detect potential Washington, DC traffic violations as they occur, such as a vehicle owned by a driver with a suspended license.

As a Washington, DC traffic violations defense lawyer, I am concerned to see whether there will be an increase in the number of people pulled over without probable cause to make a legal traffic stop.  The DC police have probable cause to stop a car when they witness someone allegedly commit a moving violation such as speeding, reckless driving, tailgating, etc. However, if they run the plate and discover that the owner has a suspended license, it does not necessarily mean that the owner is driving the car.  It is quite possible that a family member is driving the car while the owner’s license is suspended because of a DUI charge.

If the police pull over a car because the plate returns a hit that may be invalid, and then decide to search the car, this may amount to a violation of the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights to protection from unlawful search and seizure.