Move along, citizen, nothing to see here

They can run me through a full-body scanner, drive an X-ray van past my house, stick a GPS locator on my car and photograph my license plates as I drive to work. They tell me I have nothing to worry about if I’ve done nothing wrong.

I’m not a terrorist, drug runner, bobcat poacher or car thief. But with ever-increasing homeland security and police technologies, we all stand greater chances every day of being dragged through the nets being cast to haul in the bad guys.

Catch the terrorists, convict them and lock them up. Bust the drug smugglers. Find the car boosters and recover their loot. Nail the poachers. But do it without using your geek gear to snoop around me. Even with honest agencies and personnel, the overall level of official nosiness is headed toward oppressiveness. This calls for judicious regulation of the toy box.

Several recent cases illustrate. In Weber County, the sheriff’s office has begun using a $20,000 system in a patrol car to scan plates on all vehicles that go by, sometimes hundreds in an hour. The numbers flow through law enforcement databases and problem plates are flagged. Stolen cars have been spotted, but the automation has allowed officers to hand out lots more citations for expired tags and the like. This is like being asked by a robot to show your papers.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has been battling in Congress to rein in use of full-body scanners at airports. He regards it as an excessive infringement of passenger privacy. More recently, it has come to light that law enforcement agencies and security firms have fielded drive-by van X-ray scanners. They can reveal details behind walls, such as human bodies, weapons, etc. Makes me think twice, even more than usual, about strolling through my house in shorts. The Big Eye may be watching.

What’s the cliche? Even paranoids are right sometimes.

A constitutional challenge resulted from the recent case of a bobcat trapper who was convicted of poaching pelts. Wildlife officers tracked his movements with a GPS device planted on his vehicle. His attorney fought the surveillance as an unconstitutional infringement of his rights. The appeal failed but the case law remains murky. In some states, GPS surveillance require a judge’s warrant. Elsewhere, not even informal judicial authorization is mandated.

This is a good time for cooler heads. I am glad that use of new technologies are being debated. It’s healthy that legislative bodies and courts have become involved. In such an environment of an open society, it’s much more difficult for a Boss Hogg or police state situation to develop.

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9 Responses to Move along, citizen, nothing to see here

  1. I would think that x-rays looking through walls would constitute unlawful search as well as invasion of privacy. I’d walk around in shorts just out of spite if I thought I was being watched that way (make them sorry they even looked…. LOL). License plate scanning and airport body scans are a little different because there is no right to drive or fly on planes.

    Still, it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to recognize that maximizing the number of citations to drivers (with minimal paid human effort) is just yet another way for the government to profit from anyone who has a job to drive to.

    Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

  2. Bob Becker says:


    You wrote: Still, it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to recognize that maximizing the number of citations to drivers (with minimal paid human effort) is just yet another way for the government to profit from anyone who has a job to drive to.

    Current Salt Lake City Weekly has an article detailing how Utahns are routinely stuck for thousands of dollars [to get a car out of impound, legal fees etc] for DUI arrests even when they are found not guilty or the charges are dropped before trial. I was surprised to learn that you are not refunded your impound and towing fees if it turns out you are falsely arrested for DUI in Utah.

  3. Yes Bob I read that CW article. Personally not a drinker, but someone I know was pulled over after she’d made it home and her car was in the apartment parking stall – turned off – as she was getting out of the car. They arrested her for a DUI, ended up only charging her with “impaired” driving (she was below legal limit, and even though they LOST the evidence, she had already admitted on record to having a few drinks – dumb kids!!). Nonetheless impounded her car (yes, from its parking space) and made her pay all the fees as though she’d been convicted of DUI. While it was a good lesson for her, really now – arresting someone 15 ft. from their bed who was below legal limit, losing the evidence, and collecting fees… overzealous and greedy much?

    You only have to look at the booking mugs page on the site and see how many are arrested for “failure to appear” to recognize the money-making gougery. The majority of those are people with unpaid traffic tickets and other non-criminal offenses. I’ve heard police officers laughing about arresting someone for owing a court as little as $50 (which then becomes a $200+ fine). This is do know personally. Way to stick it to the working stiffs, Utah.

  4. Meg says:

    Bob and Catherine,
    Just heard an interesting story that ties well into what you stated about overzealous officers looking to make an arrest. Of course in Ogden it get a little hairy with a quota in place.

    According to The New York Times, a precinct under quota was breaking all the rules by punishing officers that didn’t follow…wonder if we have that problem in O-town?
    Here’s the link. This Americna Life did a fantastic job on the story as well.

  5. Tony says:

    Think these things are intrusive? Think about the wonderful data base that we have self generated by tagging pics of ourselves, family and friends on sites like facebook. Anyone want to lay odds that the gov has access to those files and using face recognition tech, can identity you walking down any camera covered street in America?

  6. Meg – that was an interesting article. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the most zealous cities are the ones with quotas. Budget pressures are everywhere, and the idea of raising taxes to cover costs isn’t flying with anyone – I think that in itself is good motivation for municipalities to use citations as fund-raisers.

  7. Kris Baker says:

    I’m a privacy \realist\.

    I’ll go through a full-body scanner at the airport willingly (because in Utah, it’s the shortest line thanks to Chaffetz’ paranoia).

    I know that, for years, my car’s license plate number has been written down **every time** I stay at a hotel. (You don’t know that police departments scan the hotel parking lots?) I’ve caught them more than once, when I’ve gone out late at night to retrieve something from a vehicle. I always ask them if they’ve found anything interesting. Or if I’m parked next to bin Laden.

    If I put my name and face on Facebook, I am the one who’s exposed myself publicly. Someone I know, is bragging right now that they’re in China. (Think!)

    If my car is parked or being driven in public, I don’t expect privacy for that license number. I see no difference between my license plate number being manually written down, than if it’s part of a thousand scanned in an hour. The only difference is efficiency.

    You don’t like warrants that put GPSs on criminals’ vehicles (but you’re also appalled when the WVC PD didn’t put one on Josh Powell’s rental car — or even know that he had one!)

    BUT…when I am NOT in a public place, I DO have an expectation of privacy and I will fight for that privacy. You’d better convince a judge that there is a reasonable expectation of a crime, and get that warrant, before you scan me inside my home.

  8. Tom says:

    If you don’t keep your self and your car straight with the law you will hate this new deal. If you do, and your car is stolen and then recovered by it you will love it! (or maybe not if you have good insurance and are upside down on your payments!)

  9. Mark Shenefelt says:

    @Kris, I’m OK with cops putting tracking devices on crooks’ cars as long as they get a judge’s warrant. That’s not a painstaking process, but the cops have to have a good argument. This system prevents unjustified snooping.

    I also think you’ve too readily giving up your privacy in public places. Too many of the modern law enforcement methods amount to sifting everyone through sweeping filters, hoping to catch a few bad guys. It’s excessive Big Brotherism.

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