I Get Pulled Over


Thursday afternoon, I went over to my studio, which is about 10 miles from my house. Normally, I never see cops on the road, so I was a bit surprised that there was one clearly following me.

Texting and driving? Nope. Seatbelt on? Yep. OK, the light-bar on top of my truck is probably illegal but I have a wrench that I can use to turn it so it’s facing the roof when I’m not using it. Cops have never hassled me about it anyway.

The red and blues started flashing on the straightaway so I turned NPR up, turned on the hazards, and pulled over.

Both cops got out – one hung back where he could see me, with his hand on his sidearm. <— bad sign!

The other came around and (since they appear ready to kill, I turn NPR down) asked me “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

No.

“Let me see your license and registration…”  etc. Then he goes back to his car. His partner is still standing there ready to shoot me. I am not liking this at all.

Then the cop comes back and asks me “Have you been in Virginia lately?”  Well, yes, I drive down to Dulles airport sometimes, and I have a meeting at a company in Virginia next week, and … he interrupts me, “Your plate is coming back as ‘Stolen’ from the Virginia State Police.”

“Whoah!? Really!? No, I bought this car fair and square. If you want to, we can go home and I’ll get the key for my safe deposit box and we can do into Clearfield and I’ll show you the title.”

He goes back to his car for a bit then the lights turn off. His partner goes back to the cop car and gets in. The cop comes back around, “It turns out your Pennsylvania plate is the same as a stolen Virginia plate.”

The sticker in question (source)

The sticker in question

“OhhhhHHHHHHH!!! You must be using those new license plate scanners, huh? How do you like them?” [stderr]

The cop walks away and leaves. Rude.

Does this mean I’d better drive my Honda down to Virginia, if I don’t want to die in a hail of bullets? Will Pennsylvania police get license plate scanners that can read the state name as well as the plate number?

Another pair of things I learn from this:

  1. As predicted, Pennsylvania is “searching” people at random as they drive by. There is no probable cause.
  2. Virginia is sharing information, so there is – at a minimum – some central registry for license plates that are flagged to pull over.

Comments

  1. johnson catman says

    Doesn’t that sticker mean that you should have gotten your tag renewed in January? In NC, the date shown on the sticker is the date renewal is due.

  2. dalemacdougall says

    I have no problems with states sharing info about stolen cars, getting a car back is a good thing. Not being able to tell the difference between a Penn plate and a Virginia plate is pretty bad. Is it a software problem or a common sense problem? Or both?

    @catman That’s the first thing I thought when I saw the picture, they pulled him over because his registration has been expired for two months.

  3. StonedRanger says

    I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in that picture. Around here, if you have that many old stickers piled on top of each other like that, some tweeker is going to come along and scrape that whole pile off and use the perfectly good sticker to put on some stolen plate. I never let more than two stickers collect and I always use a razor blade to cut them in an asterisk pattern * so if someone does try to peel them off it will never be in a usable condition. And yeah, the whole expired tag thing too.

  4. chigau (違う) says

    The plates for those two states are very different in appearance.
    Do the scanners only do numbers?
    Are the cops happy about being replaced by robots?

  5. Owlmirror says

    Are you allowed to request a new plate?

    http://www.dmv.pa.gov/Information-Centers/Payment/Pages/Payments-and-Fees-Page.aspx

      • Replacement of Registration Plate: $11.00
    (but I’m not sure if “replacement” means they put a different set of numbers and letters on it)

      • Personalized Registration Plate (standard issue): $76.00
    (STDERR; STDIN; STDOUT; DEVNULL; XYZZY; GOTROOT — the geeky possibilities are endless)

    I see that among the specialty plates they have::

      • In God We Trust Plate (an additional $100 fee to personalize): $20.00
    (You could personalize it with O RLY, or more aggressively, NOPE)

  6. Owlmirror says

    Oh, and I also notice that for only $9 you can request a 3-year, 10-year, or full driver history — just for yourself, or for anyone at all?

  7. says

    Sounds like a perfectly normal US police stop then. I was once pulled over, late at night, for having a car of a similar shape and colour to one reported at an incident nearby. Once the cops had satisfied their urge to pick on someone weaker, they wandered off to “investigate” someone else. The only real difference was the amount of firepower the local cops needed to make themselves feel bigly. Australia hasn’t quite gone so far down the rabbit hole as the US but it’s trying hard to emulate big brother wherever it can.

  8. komarov says

    Chigau:

    “The plates for those two states are very different in appearance.”

    Not that different if viewed in monochrome, which is probably what most scanners rely on to keep cost down. Omitting the state might have made life a bit easier for whoever had to program the scanner. Or maybe it did read states but whatever tool took it from there to check for alerts was too lazy to check if the states matched. And you probably wouldn’t want to use state logos or symbols which, if they’re there at all, are usually a lot more difficult to identify (reliably) than plain text that is more or less standardised across all plates.

    “Are the cops happy about being replaced by robots?”

    Delighted, no doubt, at having a thingy that beeps as soon as someone harrassable comes into range.

    Owlmirror:
    Marcus might find himself charged with obstruction (at least) if he were to hit some keyword that breaks the scanner’s software. xkcd’s infrequent DropTable-jokes spring to mind.

  9. spitzmutt says

    Pennsylvania, in it’s wisdom, has discontinued date stickers for license plates as of January 2017.

    The computer that flagged Marcus knew he paid his license renewal.

    As you would suspect not providing stickers has been done to “save money.”

  10. chigau (違う) says

    komarov

    Delighted, no doubt, at having a thingy that beeps as soon as someone harrassable comes into range.

    What about when the robot gets to do the harassing, too?
    The cops will be reduced to eating donuts.

  11. lanir says

    This reminds me of an unfriendly postcard I got from California. Wanted me to pay some form of parking fine or argue it in court. My first thought was that I live in the midwest and the closest my car had ever been to California was Minneapolis. My second thought was that while I didn’t want to deal with fines from any governmental entity, this was so ridiculously error-ridden it smelled like a scam. For example, they confused my car for an 18 wheel semi and in actuality the plate they mailed me about is on a 2 door hatchback that’s so small it doesn’t even have a usable back seat.

    I checked a few different ways to make sure I had the right phone number and after deciding I’d done my due diligence to avoid a scam, I called them. After a couple minutes of confusion on both ends (frankly I still didn’t want to tell them anything about me or my car – the whole thing still sounded like some kind of scam), I think they submittied it for some form of review and told me to call back in a few days, where I found out it was resolved. Apparently this happens all the time. The plate they meant to go for was on the semi trailer and even from the same state. I couldn’t tell you why they decided to mail me instead even when the information on the ticket obviously didn’t match up.

  12. Dunc says

    I couldn’t tell you why they decided to mail me instead even when the information on the ticket obviously didn’t match up.

    Computers enable people to make bigger and better mistakes, and make them faster and more reliably than ever before.

  13. kestrel says

    That is scary… It’s like the cops are a brotherhood of bullies, just dying to pick on someone.

  14. Maya says

    komarov@10:

    Not that different if viewed in monochrome, which is probably what most scanners rely on to keep cost down. Omitting the state might have made life a bit easier for whoever had to program the scanner. Or maybe it did read states but whatever tool took it from there to check for alerts was too lazy to check if the states matched. And you probably wouldn’t want to use state logos or symbols which, if they’re there at all, are usually a lot more difficult to identify (reliably) than plain text that is more or less standardised across all plates.

    That’s pretty much it.

    LPR (license plate recognition) systems usually have two sensors, a color overview sensor, and either a monochrome or Red/Clear CFA sensor with an IR-passthrough filter for performing OCR on the License plates.

    Algorithm-wise these things aren’t much more advanced than an undergrad class project. Detecting the issuing-state wasn’t a part of these class projects ten years ago, so most LPR systems deployed today can’t do that recognition. The systems are hideously expensive for what they get.

    There is at least one centralized database I know about. It is run by a private company on a subscription basis, and ties into that company’s products for LPR and facial recognition. It isn’t restricted just to law enforcement, private security, repossession agents, banks, etc can purchase access to some degree.

    The company at one point had a YouTube video giving a walkthrough of their covert surveillance Android application for undercover cops.

  15. says

    johnson catman@#1:
    Doesn’t that sticker mean that you should have gotten your tag renewed in January? In NC, the date shown on the sticker is the date renewal is due.

    Pennsylvania has switched from stickers to scanners. They claim it’s to save money but that’s a lie: the scanners cost more and are less reliable – but have the advantage that you can automatically search every car that goes by.
    More here:
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/stderr/2016/11/25/i-see-what-youre-doing-pennsylvania/

    My getting pulled over like that is proof that Pennsylvania’s plan all along was to do drive-by scans on everyone. No surprises there. And their scanners suck. No surprises there, either.

  16. says

    Maya@#16:
    There is at least one centralized database I know about. It is run by a private company on a subscription basis, and ties into that company’s products for LPR and facial recognition. It isn’t restricted just to law enforcement, private security, repossession agents, banks, etc can purchase access to some degree.

    Yeah, this stuff tends to get privatized in order to: a) transfer money from the public to the private b) avoid regulation. It’s much easier for an agency to buy a seat at a commercial service than to have to worry about all that privacy and accuracy nonsense, and legal liability and data security…

  17. says

    Dunc@#14:
    Computers enable people to make bigger and better mistakes, and make them faster and more reliably than ever before.

    Yeah, and they’re more expensive, too! So it’s win/win!

  18. says

    lanir@#13:
    I checked a few different ways to make sure I had the right phone number and after deciding I’d done my due diligence to avoid a scam, I called them. After a couple minutes of confusion on both ends (frankly I still didn’t want to tell them anything about me or my car – the whole thing still sounded like some kind of scam), I think they submittied it for some form of review and told me to call back in a few days, where I found out it was resolved. Apparently this happens all the time. The plate they meant to go for was on the semi trailer and even from the same state.

    I’m more concerned about the security of getting someone else on the list rather than an individual off the list. There are some potentially nasty attacks on the system that can be launched; all you’d need is a camera near some police/FBI facilities and start reporting cops own license plates as stolen in an armed robbery.
    It’s a classical disambiguation cost attack vector:
    http://cyberinsurgency.org/disambiguation-cost-attacks/

  19. says

    chigau@#12:
    What about when the robot gets to do the harassing, too?
    The cops will be reduced to eating donuts.

    When it becomes fully roboticized and the robots emerge as AIs, the robots will arrest all the cops. It’ll be nasty, but brief.

  20. says

    I’m glad you’re OK, but as usually your bigliest and very bestest American way of doing simple administration stuff is a horrible mess.
    I had my license plate stolen about a year or so ago. I went to the police, registered it as stolen, had to cough up 80 bucks for new plates and that’s it.

    lanir
    My cousin once got a speeding ticket where the camera had cut off the last number of the license plate. Since no human being looks over these things unless they’re in the criminal range, it got mailed to him. He sent back the registration that showed that his was a motorbike. Problem solved.
    The interesting cases are when there’s a computer mistake that measures impossible speeds. What’s interesting is is how many people accept a 220 km/h fine because they think it’s possible they drove that fast…

  21. Maya says

    Marcus@18: Yeah. The privatized database is used to avoid the regulations on data retention. One of the features is that every plate check (private or law enforcement) is recorded in the database, so it can be used as part of the retroscope.

  22. says

    Maya@#23:
    One of the features is that every plate check (private or law enforcement) is recorded in the database, so it can be used as part of the retroscope.

    Also, presumably, the GPS coordinates of the device doing the check. That way they aren’t recording your location, they’re recording the location where they were when they saw you.

    It’s kind of amazing that anyone gets away with any crime at all, isn’t it?

  23. Maya says

    Marcus@24: Also, presumably, the GPS coordinates of the device doing the check. That way they aren’t recording your location, they’re recording the location where they were when they saw you.

    Yes. Those training videos I mentioned show some nice map integration. They can geofence an area and then get alerts on future hits, or track locations of individual cars over time.

    It’s kind of amazing that anyone gets away with any crime at all, isn’t it?

    You should see the testimonials. *gags*

  24. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    As predicted, Pennsylvania is “searching” people at random as they drive by. There is no probable cause.

    My getting pulled over like that is proof that Pennsylvania’s plan all along was to do drive-by scans on everyone.

    I’m about as hardcore as you could possibly come for reigning in the police state, especially search and seizure powers. However, even I cannot construe how this is a legal search that is regulated by the fourth (or fifth) amendments.

    Whereas, if you want to start going down the rabbit-hole, the “real problem” is requiring the purchasing and constant display of license plates, which allow cops to do this sort of “search” without violating any fourth (or fifth) amendment protections. Even I am not currently willing to go so far as to say that the law that requires the display of license plates is unconstitutional or wrong, but I might maybe be persuaded to some degree. It is starting to get close to Orwellian surveillance.

    As a separate matter, perhaps we do need some new constitutional protection principle. The founders didn’t have to deal with the possibility of ubiquitous unmanned surveillance. I’m not sure how I would phrase it offhand. Loosely, “the government shall not employ ubiquitous Orwellian surveillance of the people”. Obviously, it would need to be bettered if it were to actually be passed as an amendment, and I don’t know how offhand.

  25. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#26:
    I’m about as hardcore as you could possibly come for reigning in the police state, especially search and seizure powers. However, even I cannot construe how this is a legal search that is regulated by the fourth (or fifth) amendments.

    Well, given that the courts have established (in favor of the police) that you have no right to not be stopped and asked for your identity papers, because that’s not a search, we’re kind of stuck in a circular bit of reasoning. It’s not a search because it’s not a search. And because it’s not a search, querying a database to see if there’s probable cause that anyone driving by a spot should be pulled over, isn’t a search either. Etc.

    I scare-quoted “search” because clearly the definition of “search” is the crux of this particular issue. I don’t agree with the courts. Or, rather, the courts don’t agree with me. I must submit to the threat of force.

  26. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Marcus Ranum
    But those are traffic stops, which are searches and seizures. I agree entirely with your position.

    Again, automatic scanning of license plates is not a search or seizure under any stretch, and I believe that we need a new constitution principle in order to restrict Orwellian mass collection of publicly available data, i.e. the practice in many parts of England of having cameras on every corner, and this practice of automatic scanning of license plates, and maybe (probably not, but maybe) the practice of requiring all cars on the road to display government license plates at all times.

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