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  • Jim Chapman

Warrantless search of a license plate image approved by the district court as not violating the Four

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Author: Jim Chapman


According to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, law enforcement officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they used images of a license plate taken by automated cameras to help identify a man suspected of bank robbery. United States District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman made this ruling in United States v. Porter, 2022 WL 124563 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 13, 2022). The relevant facts are as follows.

The allegations contained in the indictment arise from three separate bank robberies: a November 13, 2020 robbery of a Citibank (Count I); a December 22, 2020 robbery of a Chase Bank (Count II); and a February 4, 2021 robbery of a Fifth Third Bank (Count IV). On November 13, 2020, a man approached a teller at a Citibank branch on Western Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, and demanded that the teller “put all the money in the bag.” The teller described the robber as a black male, approximately 6’0” tall, with an average to stocky build in his 40s. Surveillance footage showed that the man was wearing a black hat, black jacket, face mask, and black shoes with white soles. Surveillance footage also captured a man matching this description exit a silver Ford Explorer with a large, white decal on the rear window and walk toward the Citibank immediately before the robbery. A few minutes later, that man returned to the vehicle.

On December 22, 2020, a man robbed a Chase Bank located on North Clark Street in Chicago, Illinois. The teller identified the robber as a black male, approximately 40 years old, between 6’1” and 6’2” tall, weighing around 220 pounds. After demanding $20,000 from the teller while brandishing a gun, video surveillance captured the man exit the bank and enter a silver Ford Explorer with no rear window decal, which sped down the street. Additional footage captured the driver exit the vehicle fourteen minutes after the robbery to affix a license plate to the Ford Explorer. Capturing an image of the license plate through a City of Chicago automatic license plate reader, law enforcement identified the 2007 Ford Explorer as a vehicle registered to Defendant Christopher Porter (“Porter”).

Law enforcement then, without obtaining a search warrant, queried the National Vehicle Location Services, an automatic license plate reader database, for images of Porter’s license plate over a period of eight weeks. The Government asserted that at least two of these images were pertinent to their investigation. The first image, taken on November 11, 2020, two days before the first robbery, showed the Ford Explorer registered to Porter bore a large, white decal on the rear window similar to that on the vehicle used in the November 13 bank robbery. The second image, taken on November 15, 2020, two days after the robbery, showed Porter’s vehicle without the rear window decal. Based on this information, law enforcement obtained a warrant to install a GPS tracking device on Porter’s silver Ford Explorer for forty-five (45) days.

On February 4, 2021, a man robbed a Fifth Third Bank on West 25th Street in Chicago, Illinois. Using a gun, the robber demanded $20,000 from the teller. The teller identified the robber as a black male, approximately 40 years of age, approximately 200-220 pounds, with a medium build, 6’0” or taller. Cameras in the area of the robbery captured a black male with a similar description flee the bank. Three minutes later, cameras captured a silver SUV traveling away from the bank toward the area where law enforcement ultimately located Porter’s vehicle.

After he was indicated with three counts of bank robbery and with one count of brandishing a firearm in relation to the second count of bank robbery, Porter moved to suppress all of the evidence that law enforcement had obtained from the license plate reader database search. Porter argued that law enforcement’s use of the license plate reader violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

The District Court was not persuaded by Porter’s arguments. The District Court explained that the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. A search may occur under the Fourth Amendment when the government physically intrudes into a constitutionally protected area or when an expectation of privacy that society is prepared to consider reasonable is infringed.

In the instant case, the District Court stated that the question was whether the query of the automated license plate reader infringed upon Porter’s reasonable expectation of privacy to his publicly displayed license plate while driving on public roads. Porter argued that it did because the data as a whole unduly revealed his private movement.

Disagreeing with Porter, the District Court opined that, generally, individuals do not possess a reasonable expectation of privacy for information that they voluntarily display to the public, especially when traveling in automobiles. However, the use of technology to extensively surveil public travel may, nonetheless, rise to the level of a search, especially where it reveals a wealth of detail about the individual’s familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.

Here, the District Court held that law enforcement’s use of the automated license plate reader database did not infringe upon Porter’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Under the framework outlined by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012), the database query response did not reveal intimate details of Porter’s daily life, nor did it track his every movement. Rather, the query produced limited images of Porter’s vehicle at public locations over a period of approximately eight weeks, which reveals little about the intimate details of his life.

In fact, when the Government sought detailed information about Porter’s location and movement, it obtained a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on his Ford Explorer. While the Supreme Court has warned that the aggregation of publicly displayed information obtained through new technologies may trigger Fourth Amendment protections, the District Court held that was not the case here. Rather, the District Court found that the facts in this case were more akin to those in United States v. Tuggle, 4 F.4th 505 (7th Cir. 2021). In Tuggle, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the use of pole cameras over an 18-month period did not constitute a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment because the cameras did not expose intimate details of the defendant’s life nor capture the whole of his physical movements. Accordingly, the District Court denied Porter’s motion to suppress.

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