Police blotter: When can cops run license-plate searches? (2023)

  • Tech
  • Tech Industry

In this week's installment, appeals court says police need no justification to check license plates against databases.

Police blotter: When can cops run license-plate searches? (1)

Declan McCullagh

Police blotter: When can cops run license-plate searches? (2)

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer

Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.

See full bio

5 min read

"Police blotter" is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: A Michigan man who was arrested after a police officer checked his license plate against a computer database tried to suppress that evidence on privacy grounds.

When: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Sept. 5.

Outcome: Defendant loses when appeals court rules that Americans have no Fourth Amendment protection against computer checks--even extensive ones--of their license-plate numbers.

What happened, according to court documents:

When Officer Mark Keeley of the Farmington Hills, Mich., police department was driving around a local shopping center, he noticed a white van idling in the lane closest to the stores. A man was inside and the lane was marked with "Fire Lane" and "No Parking" signs.

Keeley entered the vehicle's license-plate number into his patrol car's Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN). According to the Michigan state government's Web site (PDF), LEIN databases include missing persons, Michigan state criminal history, prison and parole information, and a list of wanted people from the National Crime Information Center.

The LEIN search showed that the vehicle was registered to Curtis Ellison, a black man who had an outstanding felony warrant. Keeley called for backup, approached the van and arrested Ellison. During the arrest, Ellison was found to have two firearms. He was later indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of federal law.

The trial judge ruled, however, that the van was not parked illegally and therefore Keeley did not have probable cause to run the LEIN check of the van's license plate. Therefore, the judge reasoned, the results of the LEIN check should be suppressed, including the discovery of Ellison's two firearms.

The U.S. Attorney's office appealed, saying that Americans have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their license-plate numbers, and therefore police need no probable cause to conduct computer checks.

In a 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel from the 6th Circuit agreed. They said that "a motorist has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information contained on his license plate under the Fourth Amendment...The very purpose of a license plate number, like that of a Vehicle Identification Number, is to provide identifying information to law enforcement officials and others." (The majority also rejected Ellison's argument that he was racially profiled because he was black.)

In a dissent, however, Judge Karen Nelson Moore said the U.S. Attorney raised the argument at a late stage and it should be rejected. Without more information collected by the trial judge, such as how much information on the general public is available on the LEIN system, Moore said, it's impossible to evaluate how intrusive the computer check is.

Moore said that the key point was not whether police could read someone's license plate but under what circumstances they could perform an extensive search of computer databases. She said the FBI's National Crime Information Center system contains more than 23 million records about people and vehicles--not all accurate or up-to-date--and "allowing the information contained therein to form the basis for a seizure without any other heightened suspicion, let alone probable cause, compounds the risk of privacy intrusions that errors in these databases impose."

Of particular relevance to Police Blotter are the implications of technological advances that let roadside cameras read every license plate that goes by and perform checks against computer databases--checks that would identify not just outstanding warrants but outstanding parking tickets. If the 6th Circuit's reasoning prevails, there would be no Fourth Amendment protection against it.

Similar systems are already in place. Indiana police are using cameras attached to a squad car that automatically scan license plates and check each one against a police database.

Excerpts from dissent by Judge Moore:

To assess properly the Fourth Amendment concerns raised by the use of the LEIN system, any court would need to know what type of information is available on the system; how this information is obtained; who can access the information; what safeguards, if any, are in place to prevent unauthorized access to the information; whether this information was available to police prior to the advent of the mobile data terminal; what the typical police practice is regarding the use of such searches; whether there are any procedures in place to guard against arbitrary searches; what options are available to regulate the use of the technology...

The majority rests its conclusion that the Fourth Amendment was not implicated by the LEIN search on the relatively uncontroversial fact that the operator of a vehicle has no privacy interest in the particular combination of letters and numerals that make up his license-plate number, but pays short shrift to the crucial issue of how the license-plate information is used...

This approach misses the crux of the issue before the court: even if there is no privacy interest in the license-plate number per se, can the police, without any measure of heightened suspicion or other constraint on their discretion, conduct a search using the license-plate number to access information about the vehicle and its operator that may not otherwise be public or accessible by the police without heightened suspicion?

It is worthwhile to spell out some of the Fourth Amendment concerns that the use of such technology raises, as no court of appeals has yet done so. The use of a computer database to acquire information about drivers through their license-plate numbers without any heightened suspicion is in tension with many of the Fourth Amendment concerns...

An individual operating or traveling in an automobile does not lose all reasonable expectation of privacy simply because the automobile and its use are subject to government regulation. Automobile travel is a basic, pervasive, and often necessary mode of transportation to and from one's home, workplace, and leisure activities. Many people spend more hours each day traveling in cars than walking on the streets. Undoubtedly, many find a greater sense of security and privacy in traveling in an automobile than they do in exposing themselves by pedestrian or other modes of travel. Were the individual subject to unfettered governmental intrusion every time he entered an automobile, the security guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment would be seriously circumscribed...

Although the license-plate search at issue here is arguably less invasive than a license-and-registration check, the constitutional concerns regarding abuse of discretion do not disappear simply because drivers are not stopped to conduct the license-plate search. First, a search can implicate the Fourth Amendment even when the individual does not know that she is being searched. Second, the balancing of Fourth Amendment interests also requires consideration of "psychological intrusion[s] visited upon" the individuals searched in assessing the extent of intrusion that a particular police practice imposes. The psychological invasion that results from knowing that one's personal information is subject to search by the police, for no reason, at any time one is driving a car is undoubtedly grave...


Is it legal to look up license plates in Texas? ›

This law, the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), makes it illegal for the general public, including the media, to obtain, publish or confirm personal information about you from the state motor vehicle database. The law does provide exceptions for certain entities, such as courts and police.

What do police see when they run your plates in Texas? ›

It matches plates with a database for driver criminal warrants, suspended licenses and other criminal court or Texas Department of Transportation red flags associated with the vehicle or registered owner.

How do I run plates in Texas? ›

You may conduct a license plate lookup by visiting the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. Other third-party vendors also provide free and paid services for requesters to perform license plate lookups online.

Can cops see if you were in the military? ›

No cops can't see that. Even if you have a veterans plate on your car, it doesn't tell us that the veteran it was issued to is actually in the car.

Can police run Texas plates? ›

Any cop in the U.S. or Canada can run any U.S. or Canadian plate or driver's license. All of the state and provincial motor vehicle bureaus are connected through the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS).

How do I find the owner of a vehicle by license plate in Texas? ›

There are a couple of ways in which you can look up vehicle owner information:
  1. If you're looking for a free option, you can search for the plate on our website - Lookaplate.com. ...
  2. The next option is to file Form VTR-275-K with the Texas DMV.
Feb 27, 2023

Can cops tell if you have insurance by running plates in Texas? ›

Can cops tell if you have insurance by running plates? Yes, they can. Almost all police cruisers have in-car computers now. These allow police to access license plate info, including insurance status, via the state database.

Is my car flagged by police? ›

There is no way for the general public to find out if a vehicle has a marker registered on the Police National Database sadly. This information is only available to the Police.

Can police see who is insured on a car? ›

The police rely on the motor insurance database to know who is safely insured and who is not, as insurance is a legal requirement.

Can I drive a car home without plates Texas? ›

Permit Display

If you buy a car or truck and the seller keeps the Texas license plates, the Vehicle Transit Permit allows you to legally drive the vehicle home or to your local county tax office.

Can you put front license plate on dash in Texas? ›

Further, if an individual does not wish to drill into the bumper to hang the license plate, the individual must display the license plate on the dashboard of the passenger side of the vehicle.

What are the black Texas license plates? ›

The number one specialty license plate design in Texas for 2021 was Classic Black, the full black background design from My Plates.com. This retro design has held the position as Texas' most popular plate since its official launch in 2016.

Can military police take your phone? ›

The military cannot confiscate private property without probable cause or a warrant. This would be a violation of the Soldier's Fourth Amendment rights. The NCO can order the Soldiers not turn on their phones during duty hours or to not have their phones out during duty hours, except for an emergency.

Can you be a cop with PTSD? ›

Becoming a Cop

Even medical records showing PTSD don't automatically disqualify someone from the job candidate pool. If the PTSD is so severe that it would interfere with a candidate's ability to successfully complete daily job requirements, however, employers wouldn't offer that candidate a job.

Does military outrank police? ›

No. They have nothing to do with each other and it would be like saying the supervisor at Wallmart can tell the staff at another store what to do. Someone said in one post that the FBI outrank the police and that the State Police outrank a city or county police officer.

Can cops pull you over for no front license plate Texas? ›

Texas is a two-plate state, which means drivers are supposed to have a license plate on the front and back of their vehicle. Not having a front license plate means an officer has probable cause the stop you at any time, and you may receive a citation for failure to display a license plate.

Do police cars have to be marked in Texas? ›

The Texas transportation code for unmarked police vehicles allows for exemptions. Typically, police vehicles need to be marked with specific lettering and coloring. However, an exemption allows a vehicle to go unmarked.

Do police use plate carriers? ›

Plate carriers are popular with law enforcement and military personnel in many countries because they can carry hard armor plates and extra equipment.

How can I trace the owner of a license plate number? ›

Look for the official website of the government agency that issued the license plate. If you can't find the information online, you can always call a motor vehicles agency office and ask. Explain that you want to find a vehicle's registered owner and the only information you have is a license plate number.

How can I check ownership of a car online? ›

Type VAHAN <space> vehicle's registration number. Send it to 7738299899.
How to Find Vehicle Owner details with Registration Number on VAHAN Website?
  1. Click on “Know your vehicle details” from the menu bar.
  2. Create account by entering the mobile number and email ID.
  3. Click on 'Generate OTP'
Jan 30, 2023

How do I find the owner of a number plate? ›

You can also check the car and bike owner details by number plate online via the Parivahan website under the VAHAN e-services portal. All you need is an internet-enabled smartphone or computer to check vehicle registration details through VAHAN.

What can police see from a number plate? ›

As a vehicle passes an ANPR camera, its registration number is read and instantly checked against database records of vehicles of interest. Police officers can stop a vehicle, speak to the occupants and, where necessary, make arrests.

Can you go to jail for driving without insurance in Texas? ›

No, you cannot go to jail for driving without insurance in Texas, but you can face other serious consequences, such as suspension of license and registration. Driving without insurance in Texas is illegal and can have a serious impact on your car insurance rates moving forward.

Does insurance follow the car or the driver in Texas? ›

Contrary to popular belief, car insurance follows the car, NOT the driver. So, if you were to loan your truck to your friend so he or she could move on a Saturday and they caused a crash, YOUR auto insurance would be the first to kick in, not theirs.

When can police search your car? ›

if there has been serious violence or disorder in the area. if police are looking for a suspect who fits your description. if police have reasonable grounds to suspect you're carrying drugs, a weapon or stolen property.

Can police search your car without a warrant? ›

Being asked to consent to a search is illegal

A police officer must have: a warrant or. reasonable grounds.

What is a Section 59 warning? ›

NARRATIVE. Section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002 refers to vehicles being used in a manner which causes alarm, distress or annoyance. Where a vehicle is being used in this way, or otherwise amounts to careless or inconsiderate driving, a constable in uniform will have the powers set out in subsection (3) below.

How do police detect uninsured drivers? ›

Automated License Plate Recognition Systems (ALPR)

The use of ALPR cameras, allows police to quickly and easily identify drivers who do not have valid insurance. By “running” a vehicle's license plate, police can determine whether or not the vehicle is properly insured.

Can I have an uninsured car on my driveway? ›

You must also have insurance if you leave it parked on the street, on your driveway or in your garage. The police can check on the spot if your vehicle is insured using the Motor Insurance Database. If it isn't they can seize it immediately, even if you then arrange insurance at the roadside.

Can the police tell if your car is taxed? ›

They automatically check registration plates against databases held by both the police and the DVLA. As well as seeing whether vehicles have been used in any criminal activities, they can also check if the vehicle has valid road tax, insurance and an MOT.

Can you have an unregistered car in your driveway in Texas? ›

Where I live in Texas, you can be ticketed if you park an unregistered vehicle on the street, but parking it in your driveway is okay.

How long can you drive without plates in Texas? ›

TxDMV issues a 30-Day Permit for the temporary movement of a vehicle subject to Texas registration laws. A 30-Day Permit is valid for a period of 30 days from the effective date reflected on the permit. No more than three 30-Day Permits will be issued per vehicle.

How long can I drive with out of state plates in Texas? ›

Welcome to the Lone Star State. You have 30 days from the time you move here to register your vehicle in the state. To learn how, follow the steps below. In no time at all, we will be proud to call you a Registered Texan!

Is it illegal to wrap your license plate in Texas? ›

Are license plate covers legal in Texas? Texas law prohibits license plate covers by law. You are not allowed to use anything that is blurring or reflective that damages the readability of the state name or numbers. The state also prohibits using stickers, emblems, or symbols not authorized by the State of Texas.

What is the fine for no front plate in Texas? ›

According to Texas law, all vehicles must have a license plate on the front and the rear. Those who do not adhere to the law can face a fine of up to $200.

What if my car doesn t have a front license plate holder in Texas? ›

Motorists who do not have a front license plate risk incurring a Class C misdemeanor charge, punishable by fine not to exceed $500.

What does a pink license plate mean in Texas? ›

Plates start at $55 a year, and 10 percent of the price goes to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, based in Frisco. The National Breast Cancer Foundation funds free mammograms for Texas women without health insurance. To personalize and order plates, go to www.myplates.com.

How much does it cost to get a black plate in Texas? ›

Background only license plates include non-personalized license plates with a variety of pre-approved background and character color combinations. The fees for issuance of background only license plates are $50 for one year, $130 for three years, and $175 for five years. (6) Vendor souvenir license plates.

What is the 6 number on Texas license plate? ›

The SO 6 plate was assigned to the office of the treasurer, a position that no longer exists in Texas government. Voters approved a constitutional amendment abolishing that office in 1995 and giving the comptroller control of Texas' purse strings.

Can cops force you to unlock your phone? ›

No, police cannot force you to unlock your cellphone without a search warrant. The Fourth Amendment requires police to have a warrant or your consent to search your phone.

Can police unlock your phone without password? ›

No, the police can't require you to unlock your phone without a search warrant. But even when police have a warrant, some courts have ruled that your cellphone password is protected by the Fifth Amendment and you cannot be compelled to share it.

Can police stop you for being on your phone? ›

The police still have the power to stop you if they believe you have been distracted by using a mobile phone while driving, even if it's fully hands-free.

Does anxiety disqualify you from police? ›

In general, whether you're accepted into the police force depends on your performance on an exam and a medical assessment. However, there may be a few extra requirements for those with a history of depression, anxiety or another mental disorder.

Can cops take anxiety medication? ›

Because of their potential to slow reaction times, they are generally not recommended for first responders while on duty.

What are the signs of PTSD in cops? ›

PTSD in Law Enforcement

Many officers will recognize the classic symptoms of PTSD—inability to sleep, nightmares, intrusive memories that don't fade in intensity, physical reactions to places or other things associated with the event, the feeling of always being on guard or, by contrast, feeling numb.

Who is more powerful than police? ›

Answer: The Director-General of Police is the most powerful position in the police administration, according to the uninitiated (DGP). A DGP is in charge of the entire state's police force. Likewise, the Deputy Commissioner Of Police, or DIG, is a zone's second-in-command official.

What does 1 stripe on a police uniform mean? ›

Police Officer I rank is a chevron consisting of one-stripe up. A Police Officer I becomes eligible for promotion to Police Officer II upon completion of thirty-six months of service with the department, or special appointment by the Chief of Police. All Police Officer I ranked officers are assigned to the Patrol Unit.

Is a police officer higher than a sheriff? ›

6. What is the difference between a Sheriff and a Police Chief? A Sheriff is generally (but not always) the highest, usually elected, law-enforcement officer of a county.

How do I look up a vehicle registration in Texas? ›

Registration stickers can be tracked at www.TxDMV.gov/track. You will need the license plate number and the last four digits of the VIN to track your registration sticker.

Is it illegal to take a picture of a license plate in Texas? ›

It's not illegal unless you spread derogatory information about it. License plates are generally public display.

Is it illegal to have a frame around your license plate in Texas? ›

According to the Texas Transportation Code, a license plate frame only violates the law if it “impairs the readability of the name of the state where the vehicle is registered, or the letters or numbers of the license plate at any time.” A frame that covers the words “The Lone Star State” does not violate the law.

What happens if you drive without a license plate in Texas? ›

(e) An offense under this section is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $200.

Can you view Texas vehicle registration online? ›

Registration stickers can be tracked at www.TxDMV.gov/track. You will need the license plate number and the last four digits of the VIN to track your registration sticker.

Can I check Texas registration online? ›

You can check the status of your registration renewal through our online renewal tracking tool Where's My Sticker if you completed your renewal online.

How do you get around a registration block in Texas? ›

The only option to have the registration block removed from the Tax Assessor-Collector's records is payment in full of all outstanding fines. The Tax Assessor's Office has no information about what is owed nor can they answer any questions related to what violation led to the blocked record.

Can I display my front license plate on my dashboard in Texas? ›

Further, if an individual does not wish to drill into the bumper to hang the license plate, the individual must display the license plate on the dashboard of the passenger side of the vehicle.

Should I be scared if someone took a picture of my license plate? ›

Should I be scared if someone took a picture of my license plate? Most likely, if someone took a picture of your license plate, they are definitely trying to get you in trouble. The question is, what did you do (or do they think you did), to cause them to want to record your information.

Can someone take a photo of my car without my permission? ›

However, owners of private property have no right to prevent you from photographing their property, as long as you are not trespassing. In terms of the law, trespass is defined as entering or interfering with private property without the owner's permission.

Are ghost plates illegal? ›

Any number plates that contain letters and numbers displayed with 3D or 4D effects are illegal. This two-tone look does not provide a clear display of the registration plate. In turn, it affects the readability of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras.

What are stealth plates? ›

What is Stealthplate? Stealthplate is a self-adhesive, transparent polycarbonate cover that, when placed over your number plate, prevents most infra-red (IR) cameras from imaging your registration.

Are smoked plates legal? ›

Tinted number plates are not legal for road use.

Number plates need to meet strict criteria on each of their characteristics, and one of these is the reflective levels.

Why does Tesla not have front license plate? ›

Another large group says they don't want to go through the hassle of installing a special bracket to affix a front license plate to the car or don't want to use the current stick-on bracket. A few owners claimed the front plate interfered with Tesla's auto-pilot self-driving feature.

How much is a ticket for no license plate in Texas? ›

Vehicle Equipment, Inspections and Registration Violations and Fines
Defective brakes$285.00
Defective brake lights or headlights$235.00
Expired or no safety inspection sticker$180.00
Expired or no license plate registration$210.00
7 more rows


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Domingo Moore

Last Updated: 21/01/2024

Views: 5491

Rating: 4.2 / 5 (53 voted)

Reviews: 84% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Domingo Moore

Birthday: 1997-05-20

Address: 6485 Kohler Route, Antonioton, VT 77375-0299

Phone: +3213869077934

Job: Sales Analyst

Hobby: Kayaking, Roller skating, Cabaret, Rugby, Homebrewing, Creative writing, amateur radio

Introduction: My name is Domingo Moore, I am a attractive, gorgeous, funny, jolly, spotless, nice, fantastic person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.