Mobile data terminals and random license plate checks: the need for uniform guidelines and a reasonable suspicion requirement.

AuthorCedres, Darlene

    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. It describes the various types of computerized databases accessible by MDTs, as well as the potential intrusion on personal privacy created by this technology. Specifically, Section II reviews law enforcement's use of MDTs to obtain a motorist's personal information by conducting random computer searches of vehicle license plate numbers without legal justification. Section III discusses how New Jersey's Constitution has traditionally afforded its citizens more protection from unwarranted governmental intrusions than the Federal Constitution. Therefore, under the New Jersey Constitution, citizens should be provided more safeguards against police conducting random computer searches of personal information stored on public computer databases. Section IV describes current procedural safeguards inherent in MDT technology and suggests cost-effective strategies that attempt to balance all interests. Section V also includes proposed legislative language that addresses concerns raised in the preceding sections of the Note.


    1. Mobile Data Terminals: New Technology, Outdated Law

      Today, computer technology permeates not only the law enforcement field but every facet of the public sector. Many government agencies have replaced antiquated methods of paper storage with computer storage systems.(9) However, these agencies have not provided adequate safeguards to ensure the privacy of data.

      Scant legislation addresses the advances in computer technology that threaten individual privacy. Historically, the societal definition of privacy has changed as societal notions of privacy evolve.(10) In some instances, laws have been enacted to ensure the protection of society's privacy expectations.(11) Today, as MDT technology influences societal notions of privacy, the laws governing privacy should reflect the same. The Privacy Act of 1974 ("Act") is one recent illustration of legislation protecting privacy,(12) enacted upon Congress' determination that the privacy of an individual is directly affected by the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personal information by federal agencies.(13) Despite changes in societal expectations of privacy with respect to personal information, this Act has remained essentially unchanged since its enactment.

      Across the country(14) and throughout the world,(15) computer technology is providing law enforcement with a new class of tools for fighting crime. One such new tool is the Mobile Data Terminal ("MDT"),(16) a remote portable computer which enables the transmission of data between the MDT and a host computer system.(17)

      MDT technology utilizes radio waves to transmit data(18) and interfaces with radio equipment to provide sophisticated data communication.(19) It can provide communication between an officer in his squad car and the police station dispatcher, or between officers in separate squad cars.(20) MDT hardware varies slightly among manufacturers, but a terminal is commonly comprised of a large video display, a numeric keypad, an internal wireless mobile data modern, a processor, and a memory housed in a self-contained unit which runs on a custom-made operating system.(21) Field operation of an MDT enables the user to transmit and receive encrypted in formation, view digital messages, and query remote databases.(22) The MDTs can access computerized databases such as the Department of Motor Vehicles ("DMV"), the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information Center ("NCIC"), and the State Crime Information Center ("SCIC").(23)

      MDT software can be specifically tailored for law enforcement.(24) For example, one software package reduces the officer's paperwork because it allows for the input of information into the MDT at the scene.(25)

      In order to operate an MDT in a squad car, the officer enters a user code into the unit.(26) The user code groups all communications and queries by logging the information within the department's host computer.(27) Once connected, the officer may access different databases including the DMV, the NCIC, and the SCIC.(28) If the officer enters a vehicle's license plate number, all of the vehicle's registration information (including the car's make, model number, and the owner's name) can be retrieved.(29) At the officer's discretion, an additional search of the owner's name can be conducted.(30) The search displays the owner's name, address, social security number, and license status.(31) At this point, the officer can effectuate a traffic stop if the owner's or the vehicle's information shows a violation of law.

      Additionally, the officer can conduct a criminal history records search using the driver's name or social security number.(32) Any and all records contained in the NCIC or the SCIC, among other databases, are displayed. This includes, but is not limited to, prior arrests and convictions.(33)

      Prior to the advent of MDTs, police officers used voice radio to communicate license plate search requests to a dispatcher at the police station.(34) The dispatcher was responsible for conducting all search requests from officers in the field and conveying the results back to the officers.(35) For example, a field officer would radio in a motorist's license plate to the dispatcher.(36) The dispatcher would conduct the search and inform the officer whether the vehicle or its owner were in violation of the law, e.g., the owner's license or registration was suspended.(37) If necessary, the officer would stop the car and verify the driver's information.(38) The field officer did not have easy access to a citizen's personal information such as the driver's home address, social security number, age, physical characteristics, or race. In order to obtain this information, the officer had to effectuate a stop pursuant to judicial limitations.(39) Accordingly, the field officer did not have unrestricted access to more information than was necessary to enforce the law.

      Presently, MDTs...

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