Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Massachusetts Court to Consider Warrantless License Plate Tracking

The highest court in Massachusetts is poised to consider a case that has the potential to change how law enforcement can use data gathered by automated license plate readers. The central question in the case of Commonwealth v. Jason McCarthy is whether law enforcement must obtain a court order or search warrant to use the information provided by automated license plate readers, which automatically scan the license plates of passing vehicles. 

How the Facts of the Case Arose

Brian McCarthy and Brian Whittemore were arrested on drug-related charges. The arrest occurred while law enforcement was investigating Whittemore for drug dealing and spotted McCarthy’s mother’s vehicle at Whittemore’s house. Using automated license plate readers, law enforcement tracked McCarthy’s vehicle. The police later followed McCarthy and observed what they determined to be a drug deal. Later, law enforcement seized money McCarthy used to pay bail on the basis that it was believed to be drug money. 

Arguments Presented by Both Sides

McCarthy’s case involves the argument that law enforcement violated his privacy rights through the use of license plate readers. Because his privacy rights were invaded, McCarthy argues that all seized evidence should be suppressed. Lawyers on behalf of McCarthy state that he has a right to be left free from government surveillance to this degree without the oversight of a judge.

On the opposite side of this argument is the prosecution, who argues that someone driving on a public roadway does not have an expectation of privacy. Because McCarthy had no expectation of privacy, law enforcement argues that his rights were not invaded by this search. 

The Role of License Plate Readers in Massachusetts

Since 2014, license plate readers have been used by law enforcement in Massachusetts. While law enforcement has grown to depend heavily on these searches, they have also been met with opposition by some parties. 

In response, the ACLU has been requesting that the Commonwealth create limits regarding how these devices can be used as well as how data gathered from this equipment is stored and accessed. The ACLU and other organizations have even proposed a bill that would limit the amount of time law enforcement has to store data gathered from license plate readers. Massachusetts legislatures have also considered measures of this type, but they have never been passed. Law enforcement, however, has commented that these regulations would interfere with their ability to investigate crimes. In response, the ACLU has argued that there should still be controls on these searches because otherwise, law enforcement would be able to obtain potentially invasive details about individuals including their marital fidelity and religious observances. 

Speak with an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer

There are several ways in which law enforcement in Massachusetts can gather details about a person. Fortunately, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help respond to these charges. If you need the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney, do not hesitate to contact attorney Edward R. Molari today.