San Francisco Black Woman Pulled Out of Car at Gunpoint Because of License Plate Reader Error
While I recognize the legality of reading plates in public, they have got to do better than this. Always keep the technology in check with a real brain in the loop. Preferably more than one.
A lawsuit pertaining to the use of license plate readers in San Francisco illustrates how dangerous it can be when police officers turn off their eyes, ears, and brains, and mistakenly rely on imperfect technologies to tell them who’s up to no good.
On March 30, 2009, Denise Green, a 47 year-old black woman, was pulled over by multiple SFPD squad cars. Between four and six officers pointed their guns at her—one had a shotgun, she says—and told her to raise her hands above her head and exit her car. She was ordered to kneel, and she was handcuffed. Green, who suffered from knee problems, complied with all of their orders. Four officers kept their guns trained on her as she stood handcuffed, she says. Officers then searched her car and her person, finding nothing derogatory. After about 20 minutes, the police let her go.
It turns out that Denise Green was stopped because police, acting on a tip from a controversial piece of law enforcement surveillance technology, mistakenly thought she was driving a stolen car. A license plate reader had misread her plate and alerted officers that her car, a Lexus, was stolen. But if police officers had performed the most basic, visual check to ensure the information coming from the license plate reader system was accurate, they would have realized that her license plate wasn’t a match, and that the stolen car in question was a gray GMC truck, while Denise Green was driving a burgundy Lexus.
The unfortunate chain of events began when SFPD officers received a license plate reader alert identifying Green’s car as stolen. It turns out the machine misread her plate by one number, seeing a 7 where there was actually a 3. Despite not having visually confirmed that Green’s plate was a match (it wasn’t), officers radioed the plate number the license plate reader system had identified—not Green’s—and received confirmation from dispatch that a car with the license plate number in question was in fact reported stolen. Dispatch told them that the stolen car with the offending plate number was a gray truck, not a dark sedan. Meanwhile, Sergeant Kim of the SFPD heard the radio chatter about the dark Lexus and the stolen car, and saw Green’s car pass him by. He then began following her, while he radioed for backup.