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DEA’s Massive License Plate Tracking Program Spies on Millions of Americans, Helps Agents Seize Property

The Drug Enforcement Agency operates a massive license plate tracking program that is open to various federal, state and local law agencies and was specifically designed to help the agency seize property through asset forfeiture, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Heavily censored documents from the DEA show the “pilot” National License Plate Reader (LPR) Initiative was “officially opened” to “all of DEA” and the agency’s “federal, state and local counterparts” in May 2009.

The Wall Street Journal reported, “The DEA program collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction, and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways. Many devices also record visual images of drivers and passengers, which are sometimes clear enough for investigators to confirm identities, according to DEA documents and people familiar with the program.”

A slideshow showed that by 2011 there were 100 such devices deployed in the United States, including Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New Mexico and Texas. Forty-one “plate reader monitoring stations” were established in Texas, New Mexico and California by 2010.

“Cleared personnel from other federal agencies” as well as state and local agencies have the ability” to “conduct queries in the LPR database,” one record shows.

As of June 2010, the program apparently already enjoyed “enormous support from all several government and law enforcement entities” and “multiple request[s]” had “been made to connect LPR devices from state and local law enforcement.”

The DEA initiated the program to “assist with locating, identifying and seizing bulk currency, guns and other illicit contraband moving along the southwest border and throughout the United States.” The agency was committed to finding a way to “collect and manage all the data” so it could “meet its goals, of which asset forfeiture is primary.”

Asset forfeiture is a long-practiced tactic in the US government’s War on Drugs. The Washington Post explains it is an “extraordinarily powerful law enforcement tool that allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges and then requires the owners to prove their possessions were legally acquired.”

An investigative series from the Post published in 2014 called attention to how the federal government and private police trainers were “encouraging officers to target cash on the nation’s highway.” Officers or agents often stop drivers for extended periods, applying “psychological pressure” to drivers when they have not been charged or given Miranda warnings.

The DEA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal entities have even worked with a firm founded by a former California highway patrolman called Desert Snow. The firm started a private intelligence network called the Black Asphalt Electronic Networking and Notification System. The network makes it possible for law enforcement to “share reports of traffic stops” and “indicators,” which made the targets suspicious, such as: dark window tinting, air fresheners, trash in the vehicle, “inconsistent or unlikely travel” stories, vehicles on long trips lacking baggage, “profusion of energy drinks,” talkative or quiet drivers, signs of nervousness, designer apparel deemed inappropriate and multiple cellphones.

“In 2009, the DEA paid $6,700 to Black Asphalt for an improved user interface with the system.” Its users also post “Be on the Lookout” or BOLO reports for “certain drivers.”

From the Post:

In April, a California Highway Patrol officer stopped a woman driving in a Kentucky car that was littered with food wrappers and energy drinks. He did not believe her statement that she was driving to a funeral and asked her why she didn’t fly. She did not have good answer, he said. So he posted her driver’s license number and urged other police to be on the lookout. “She will be loaded coming back for sure,” he wrote.

Essentially, the DEA has overseen the creation of a vast surveillance network, which relies on “suspicious activity” reports to target vehicles and seize assets, including millions of dollars which police departments in the US can then use to buy weapons, armored vehicles and electronic surveillance gear.

A “Memorandum of Understanding” from 2010 shows that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the DEA share data collected. Homeland Security and the Justice Department are “authorized to incorporate and disseminate LPR data received from each other into documents such as reports, affidavits, legal process, case files and analytical products.”

That indicates the program enables the collection of evidence without probable cause for use by the Justice Department in prosecutions of individuals. It is a way of getting around warrant standards.

A Justice Department spokesperson downplayed reports on the documents, “It is not new that the DEA uses the license-plate reader program to arrest criminals and stop the flow of drugs in areas of high trafficking density.”

The statement essentially made it seem like there is nothing questionable to the Justice Department about having a domestic spying network powered by all levels of law enforcement in the country, where the ethically dubious practice of asset forfeiture from not just drug traffickers but innocent Americans profiled as drug traffickers is made easier.

Revelations about the DEA’s license plate tracking program come just over a week after it was reported the DEA has its own database for bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

Last year, it was reported by the Wall Street Journal that the US Marshals’ Service has flown airplanes with “dirtbox” devices set to “mimic” cellphone towers so that thousands of pieces of unique identifying information and location data from Americans can be collected. They operate at five metropolitan airports and fly over a range that covers “most of the US population.”

These expansive surveillance programs all appear to be operating in ways that likely violate the due process rights of Americans. Yet, the DEA is incredibly secretive and has managed to withhold records about its activities.

“The DEA’s license plate reader programs raise serious civil liberties concerns, and the agency should be open about what it is doing so that those activities can be subject to public debate,” Bennett Stein and Jay Stanley of the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project declared.

Stein and Stanley called attention to the fact that the public, even with this information, does not know how many license plate readers are currently being operated and where. There are scant records on the policies in use. Whether a “privacy impact assessment” has ever been done by the government is unknown. How these are being used to prosecute serious crimes is unclear. And the extent to which DEA partners with agencies is not fully known either nor is it apparent how private contractors like Vigilant Solution fit into this vast surveillance network.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that local and state police would face more limits on their ability to seize cash, vehicles and other property without a warrant. The announcement showed the Justice Department is aware of the abuses ongoing in asset forfeiture programs conducted by law enforcement.

The DEA’s spying program on drivers is where the abuse of authority begins, as numerous innocent Americans are identified, stopped each year and then forced to hand over property to the government because their actions or behavior fit a law enforcement profile of drug dealers or smugglers.

Creative Commons-Licensed Photo from Wikimedia and in the public domain

Social Security. Photo via armydre2008 on Flickr.
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."