Law enforcement use of technology for surveillance equipment is hotly contested by many privacy advocates. Recently, an Oakland privacy advocate was held at gunpoint after a license plate reader mistake — and now, he’s suing.
In a suit filed in December, Brian Hofer said a car he rented was pulled over by a Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office deputy, and additional officers joined. According to The Verge, Hofer alleges an officer drew a gun, told him and his brother to exit the car, and a deputy injured his brother after throwing him to the ground. Officers also searched the vehicle without consent.
All of this occurred because an automatic license plate reader identified the car as stolen. These readers work by using “small, high-speed cameras to photograph thousands of plates per minute”, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACLU says information captured by the readers may sometimes end up in regional sharing systems. These rapidly growing databases have few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights. According to the ACLU, information can be stored for years or even indefinitely.
KTVU reported the car was stolen — in October. That means either the police or rental car agency hadn’t issued an update, so the car would be removed from the “hot list” database.
Hofer is the chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission which, “provides advice to the City of Oakland on best practices to protect Oaklanders’ privacy rights in connection with the City’s purchase and use of surveillance equipment and other technology that collects or stores our data.”
According to KTVU, Hofer has fought against arbitrary use of Automated License Plate Readers.
The irony of the situation is not lost on Hofer. His complaint alleges the incident was a violation of his Fourth Amendment Rights, or “prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
“They picked the wrong guy,” Hofer told KTVU.
He also told the outlet, “I definitely have the privilege of skin color. I don’t have a criminal background. I’ve never had a problem with local police,” and, still, “somebody could pull a gun on you because of an alert that a computer system gave them.”