Cook County Record

Liberty Justice Center on Automatic License Plate Readers Lawsuit: “The Fourth Amendment Was Written Long Before We Had the Technology to Track Peoples’ Movements”

June 24, 2024

(Cook County Record)—A public interest law firm is suing Illinois law enforcement officials for monitoring the movements of Illinoisans with automatic license plate readers (ALPRs).

The Liberty Justice Center (LJC), through two Cook County plaintiffs, is arguing that the monitoring, which began in Cook County and is now expanding statewide, is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable searches.

The complaint filed May 30 by Stephanie Scholl and Frank Bednarz in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois names the Illinois State Police (ISP), ISP Director Brendan F. Kelly, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker as the defendants.

“Defendants are tracking anyone who drives to work in Cook County—or to school, or a grocery store, or a doctor’s office, or a pharmacy, or a political rally, or a romantic encounter, or family gathering—every day,” the lawsuit states, “without any reason to suspect anyone of anything, and are holding onto those whereabouts just in case they decide in the future that some citizen might be an appropriate target of law enforcement.”

Reilly Stephens, counsel at LJC, said given the advancement in technology, particularly AI, the lawsuit is the next step in the fight to protect the right to privacy.

“The Fourth Amendment was written long before we had the technology to track peoples’ movements,” Stephens told the Cook County Record. “And now with the introduction of AI, this is going far beyond just the reading of license plates.”

“This is one piece of the larger problem” of infringements on individual privacy, Stephens added.

If successful, the lawsuit could upend the use of ALPRs by hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the country.

In 2019, the Illinois General Assembly approved legislation that funded ALPRs through Chicago’s expressways. In 2022, the program began to expand beyond Cook County.

“This system has brought Big Brother to Illinois,” plaintiff Stephanie Scholl said in a statement. “Automatically tracking and indefinitely storing information on everyone who drives into the state completely crosses the line. That isn’t a reasonable security measure—it’s a dystopia playing out in real time, in our backyards.”

LJC said that ALPRs capture an image of every vehicle that drives past and compares each vehicle’s license plate and other identifying features to a national database used by law enforcement agencies across the country. The images—as well as their date, time, and GPS coordinates—are collected and stored for future use.

Deployment of the cameras began after Tamara Clayton, a postal worker, was shot to death on Interstate 57 in 2019.

Since the cameras were installed, the number of shootings has fallen sharply, the Chicago Tribune reported.

“From a peak of 310 such shootings in 2021, the number dropped almost in half in 2022, and another 32% in 2023,” the report said. “The rate of shootings is down again this year, while the number of arrests, gun seizures, and recovered carjacked or stolen cars has increased significantly.”

But Stephens noted that there were far fewer shootings in 2019 before the cameras were installed, and that shootings have come down nationally since a record high in 2021.

“There is no proven causation here at all,” Stephens said.

Having access to the data collected by the cameras also presents an opportunity for misuse, according to a report by the Independent Institute.

“… ALPRs are already creating serious problems. Recent examples include misidentifying drivers leading to gunpoint stops, a man’s loss of the use of his arm, a Massachusetts officer misusing the tool to stalk ex-lovers, and a New Jersey officer using the technology to intimidate a man for ‘befriending the ex-girlfriend of one of the officers.’”

It was an LJC lawsuit, filed on behalf of Mark Janus (Janus v. AFSCME), that led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that public sector unions could no longer collect dues from non-union workers.

This past February, LJC filed a lawsuit on behalf of an Ohio school district employee who quit her union in 2022—only to be told four months later that the union had begun taking dues from her paycheck again.