Police won’t discuss innocent driver flagged by license plate reader error

ALWAYS WATCHING: The Prairie Village Police Department has maintained a vehicle with automatic license plate scanning capabilities since April 2013.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — The Prairie Village Police Department doesn’t want to talk about the automatic license plate reader error that led to an innocent driver being pulled over by law enforcement, gun unholstered, during rush hour traffic a week ago.

Capt. Wes Lovett, PVPD patrol commander, acknowledged that he did exchange emails with the Prairie Village Post about the matter early last week, but said he didn’t like the tone of Publisher Jay Senter’s article. Since then Lovett said he has declined to speak with other media about the traffic stop, and believed it wouldn’t be fair to discuss the matter with Kansas Watchdog.

According to the Prairie Village Post, local attorney Mark Molner was pulled over around 5:15 p.m. on April 14 near 75th Street and State Line Road in Prairie Village, Kan., after a PVPD automatic license plate reader incorrectly identified Molner’s vehicle as stolen.

Molner declined to comment when contacted by Kansas Watchdog.

The Prairie Village Post reports:

As one of the officers approached Molner’s car, Molner noticed that he had his gun out.

“He did not point it at me, but it was definitely out of the holster,” he said. “I am guessing that he saw the shock and horror on my face, and realized that I was unlikely to make (more of) a scene.”

After a few moments of conferring with the other officer on the scene, the policeman returned to Molner’s window and told him that a license plate scanner mounted on his police unit had thrown off an alert that Molner was in a stolen vehicle. As it turned out, though, the license scanner mounted on the car had misread a “7″ on Molner’s license plate as a “2.” The alert the officer received was related to a stolen Oldsmobile. Molner was driving a black BMW. Molner’s wife, who is four months pregnant, watched the incident unfolding from her car in the parking lot of Molner’s office.

Lovett said this was the first error the equipment has experienced since the PVPD acquired the plate reader a year ago. He declined to comment when asked if officers relied too heavily on technology in initiating the stop.

Lovett initially denied a request by Kansas Watchdog to obtain a copy of the patrol vehicle footage of the traffic stop. But after being asked if the video wasn’t considered a public record, he said we were welcome to submit and official request under the Kansas Open Records Act.

The PVPD is reviewing just such a request from Kansas Watchdog.

Holly Weatherford, advocacy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said she was unaware the PVPD had acquired automatic license plate reading equipment, and suggested it’s part of a growing trend.

“It seems as the technology becomes more affordable, more law enforcement agencies have access to it,” Weatherford said. “What concerns me is that this technology is being used and there are no safeguard in place to prevent misuse and protect privacy. The starting point for establishing these safeguards is to have an open discussion with local government and citizens about the risks and benefits of ALPRs. To my knowledge, this has not occurred in the metro area.”

Related: ACLU decries KS police database as ‘tool for mass surveillance’
Related: Who’s watching me? Police took photos of my license plates

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at @muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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