LA's plan to scan license plates and send Dear prostitute-seeking John letters

ALPR to send Dear John letters
Credit: Nils Hamerlinck

The Los Angeles City Council proposed a plan to automatically scan license plates, identify the owners, and then send Dear John letters to prostitute-seeking drivers.

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Have you ever taken a wrong turn or been given a strange route via a map app while driving? What if a license plate reader were to scan your plate, get your home address, and generate a “Dear John” letter which is snail-mailed to your house where your significant other opens the letter to learn you had been soliciting prostitutes? Los Angeles City Council hopes the damning “Dear John” letters will be opened by wives, girlfriends or mothers in order to shame men who solicit prostitutes.

The city council proposed using license plate readers to identify vehicles driving in areas known for prostitution and sending “john letters” to the registered owner’s address. The council voted to send the proposal to the City Attorney’s office. If the plan moves forward, then good luck explaining the wrong turn or even maintaining a friendship if you took that “detour” while borrowing a friend’s car and the letter goes to his or her address.

For years, the ACLU has been warning that automated license plate readers (ALPRs) are helping to build a surveillance society and are being used to track Americans movements. The EFF previously explained the magnitude of license plate scanning that occurs in Los Angeles:

ALPRs record data on each plate they scan, including not only the plate number but also the precise time, date and place it was encountered. The cameras can scan up to 1,800 license plates per minute, day or night, allowing one squad car to record more than 14,000 plates during the course of a single shift. We learned through litigation that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s and Police Departments are able to collect data on about 3 million vehicles every week. We’ve estimated that these two agencies alone may have amassed a database as large as a half billion datapoints.

San Fernando Valley Councilwoman Nury Martinez proposed sending the “Dear John” letters to combat the problem of prostitution in the area. Young teenage girls are “either being threatened or beaten to be out there” working as prostitutes in the area, Martinez stated in November when pimps and ‘Johns’ were warned that a new human trafficking police task force had kicked off in the Valley; there is a “massive influx of human trafficking cases” in the area and Martinez said she’d seen girls as young as 13-years-old being trafficked in her district.

Yet EFF researcher Dave Maass asked, “What happens if you have legitimate reason to be in a neighborhood?”

“If you aren’t soliciting, you have no reason to worry about finding one of these letters in your mailbox,” Martinez told the Los Angeles Daily News. “But if you are, these letters will discourage you from returning. Soliciting for sex in our neighborhoods is not OK.”

“The age of ‘pre-crime’ has arrived,” The Washington Post suggested as the Dear John policy would make it so “there are some neighborhoods where a person’s mere presence is indicative of criminal activity — that the only reason one would visit these areas is to solicit sex for money. Think about what that says to the people who live and work in those areas. It’s also a pretty surefire way to prevent these neighborhoods from ever improving. Why would anyone travel to or through an area designated a ‘prostitution zone’ to, say, offer job training, counseling, medical care or other services if doing so means their name winds up in a database of suspected johns?”

Regarding the proposal “to automate” the “process of reasonable suspicion (reducing it to mere presence at a certain place), and deploy it on a massive scale,” law enforcement technologist and police detective Nick Selby said, “Guilt by association would be a higher standard.”

“Have Ms. Martinez and the Los Angeles City Council taken leave of their senses?” Selby asked in an essay on Medium. “This scheme makes, literally, a state issue out of legal travel to arbitrary places deemed by some — but not by a court, and without due process — to be ‘related’ to crime in general, not to any specific crime.”

Selby added:

“There isn’t ‘potential’ for abuse here, this is a legislated abuse of technology that is already controversial when it’s used by police for the purpose of seeking stolen vehicles, tracking down fugitives and solving specific crimes.”

...

“No non-fascist state should ever allow this to happen.”

While using license plate readers to identify potential “johns” and send letters may be new, 40 states in the U.S. send “Dear John” letters to combat prostitution according to a 2012 report (pdf) prepared for The National Institute of Justice. In one approach, police manually acquire the license plate number of a vehicle “cruising” known prostitution strips, find the owner’s address and send a letter; the report explained a second approach in which “Police in Minneapolis, MN, Des Moines, IA, and Oakland, CA have had residents record license plate numbers and descriptions of known or suspected johns and their vehicles, and forward the information to police so they can send letters to the alleged offenders.”

Aberdeen, MD, Boston, MA, Baltimore, MD, and Evansville, IN, started sending “Dear John” letters way back in 1982. A sample “Dear John” letter from Pensacola, FL, included in the report points out that “John” and “his/her significant other” may have been exposed to a STD and should be tested. Oops, hope the “new” automated plate scanner doesn't mess up as a letter like that could wreck a relationship.

Using license plate readers to automatically scan for “suspicious” johns is problematic as how will it distinguish between drivers on the hunt for a prostitute and drivers in the area for any other reason? If a letter is generated, how long will it be stored in a system and with whom, what other agencies and databases, will it be shared and stored?

Human trafficking and forcing people into prostitution is detestable, but there are a plethora of privacy and civil liberty problems when playing the automated plate-scanning name-shame-game which could wreck the lives of “innocent” drivers.

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