Lawsuit: Court should pull the plug on police license plate readers in Illinois

A Chicago Police Department license plate reader is mounted at the intersection of Lake Shore Drive and Chicago Avenue, recording the license plate of every southbound vehicle. (Google)

CHICAGO — Two Cook County residents have filed a class action lawsuit seeking to end the use of license plate reader technology by law enforcement agencies in Illinois. In their suit, filed Tuesday, Stephanie Scholl and Frank Bednarz of Chicago call the devices, which record license plates of vehicles that pass by, an unconstitutional “system of dragnet surveillance.”

Their lawsuit specifically targets the Illinois State Police’s use of plate readers, but dozens of law enforcement agencies in the city, suburbs, and downstate use the devices. Stationary plate readers are mounted on poles, but others are deployed on police squad cars, alerting the officers inside whenever a “hot plate” hits.

“This system has brought Big Brother to Illinois,” 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.”

License plate readers have become a widely used and valuable tool for police. Upon learning the license plate of a car used in a crime, investigators can track the vehicle’s movements before and after the incident. The plate number can also be entered into a “hot list” that alerts law enforcement agencies when a car linked to a high-profile crime hits a reader.

By following a getaway vehicle’s path, for example, detectives can look for surveillance cameras along the route that link people to the car and, possibly, to the crime. CWBChicago’s archives include over 150 stories that refer to license plate readers.

However, the devices also gather the license plate information of individuals who are not suspected of being involved in any crimes. Scholl and Bednarz claim that is the problem.

“The permanent tracking of every citizen and all of their travels and whereabouts is a bridge too far,” Reilly Stephens, an attorney on the case, told Center Square

“ISP is tracking the movements of millions of citizens, including Plaintiffs, and just holding onto that mass surveillance data in case one day some police officer decides to target Plaintiffs for specific investigation—warranted or unwarranted,” the lawsuit claims.

The state police reported over 1.5 billion license plate reader hits between July 2022 and June 2023. The lawsuit said law enforcement agencies searched the data 282,118 times during that period.

To prevail, the suit may need to overcome the well-established principle that people do not have an expectation of privacy while they are in public places. The U.S. Supreme Court has also found that police officers do not need a warrant to compare license plate numbers with law enforcement databases.

However, the court has also said that using “dragnet type law enforcement practices” may raise other constitutional issues.

Scholl and Bednarz want a federal judge to order the state to stop operating its license plate reader network, pay their expenses and legal fees, and award them “any additional relief the Court deems just and proper.”

About Tim Hecke 332 Articles
Tim Hecke is CWBChicago's managing partner. He started his career at KMOX, the legendary news radio station in St. Louis. From there, he moved on to work at stations in Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York City. Tim went on to build syndicated radio news and content services that served every one of America's 100 largest radio markets. He became CWBChicago's managing partner in 2019. His email address is tim@cwbchicago.com