License Plate Reader Used Without a Warrant or Exception Ruled Unlawful

Recently, the Minnesota Court of Appeals addressed whether using an automated license plate reader (ALPR) was lawful when neither a warrant was obtained nor exigent circumstances existed. Because there is a Minnesota Statute governing ALPRs, the court of appeals focused primarily on that law in deciding State v. Lelyukh.

In this case, a person saw a vehicle drive recklessly into a parking lot at a local park in Scott County. As the vehicle stopped, beer cans fell out of the car. The concerned citizen took a picture of the vehicle, including a shot of the license plate, and called the police to report a potentially impaired driver. The police then called Mystic Lake Casino Surveillance, who has an ALPR, and asked whether they could locate the car on the casino’s property. The casino’s surveillance picked up the vehicle on its ALPR and provided police with its location and direction of travel. The police located the vehicle and stopped it, which eventually led to a DWI arrest.

At the district court level, the driver’s attorney moved to suppress all evidence obtained after the police used the ALPR without a warrant or exigent circumstances. The district court granted the driver’s motion to suppress, and this appeal followed. With the advances in technology, governments and private corporations are increasingly using license plate readers to gather data on individuals. The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA) governs the collection of such data, including the ALPR used in this case. The statute at issue here prohibits using this technology without a warrant issued upon probable cause or exigent circumstances excusing the need for a warrant. Neither of those things were present in this case. The burden is on the prosecution to show that exigent circumstances existed. These may include pursuing a fleeing felon, preventing the imminent destruction of evidence, or providing emergency aid to an injured person.

Even though the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling by ruling for the driver, it was not a unanimous decision. There was a strongly worded dissent focused on protecting the public from drunk drivers, which should be analyzed against the reasonableness of the officer’s intrusion. Also, the prosecution petitioned for review to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which may ultimately take the case and make the final decision on this issue. Until then, we are left with this current application of ALPRs by law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense attorney and DWI attorney in Woodbury, Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star for the past six years; and the National Trial Lawyer’s Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer the past seven years. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. DWI Lawyer Woodbury MN; Criminal Defense Attorney Woodbury MN; and DWI Lawyer Minnesota.