Should We Be Surprised That the DEA Is Tracking America's Drivers?

The federal agency is working "to create a centralized repository of all drivers' movements across the country" according to the ACLU.

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Feb 2 2015, 3:19pm

Photo via Flickr user Jerry "Woody"

Thanks to some sleuthing and Freedom of Information Act requests by the American Civil Liberties Union, last week the public learned that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has a license plate tracking system that contains hundreds of millions of records. Though the documents that the federal agency provided to the ACLU were "heavily redacted and incomplete," the nonprofit reported that it's clear that "this program is a major DEA initiative that has the potential to track our movements around the country. With its jurisdiction and its finances, the federal government is uniquely positioned to create a centralized repository of all drivers' movements across the country—and the DEA seems to be moving toward doing just that."

Among other revelations is that one of the "primary" goals of this piece of the American surveillance state, which was launched in 2008, was to help various law enforcement agencies with their asset-forfeiture programs, a particularly loathsome aspect of the war on drugs that involves cops seizing cash and property from suspects and then forcing them to prove their innocence to get their stuff back.

Some might argue that License Plate Recognition (LPR) scanners are far from Orwellian—all they can do is roughly track the movements of drivers, and those movements are made in public anyway. But this bulk collection of data is comparable to the NSA's casual vacuuming-up of metadata—the bits and pieces of information are individually inconsequential, but when put together they can reveal intimate details about our lives.

Clearly the DEA would prefer to not answer pesky questions about exactly how many cameras are part of this system (more than 100, according to the ACLU report), how long information is stored, and just who has access to it. We do know that the program is heavily focused on border states, including California, Arizona, and New Mexico, though it seems to be expanding rapidly. A 2009 email revealed that agency officials even considered indiscriminately tracking license plates at gun shows. Even if the excuse for that kind of tracking—which was said to be only a suggestion—is that it will lead to dangerous drug- and gun-trafficking cartels, the DEA has a long history of stepping on the gun rights of, say, people who dare to use medical marijuana.

The bottom line is that we don't have any reason to trust federal agencies that collect massive amounts of data on us. After all, just two years ago the New York Times uncovered evidence that the DEA secretly had access to a gigantic database of phone records. (The Department of Justice recently claimed that this program was discontinued in the fall of 2013.) The agency also uses what's known parallel construction to convict some drug suspects—which generally means starting an investigation off of a tip from another agency, like the NSA, then later reconstructing the narrative of the investigation to mask the fact of the original tip. And last year Edward Snowden and the Intercept revealed ICREACH, an easily searchable database of hundreds of billions of records that can be accessed by operatives from the DEA, the FBI, the NSA, and other agencies.

If revelations about the DEA's license-plate scanning seems almost exhaustingly minute compared with all the terrifying things we already know, it's still another major piece of evidence showing that the upper echelons of law enforcement have little to no interest in our constitutional rights.

Now for the rest of this week's bad cops:

–Seattle Police officer Cynthia Whitlatch was put on a dusty desk seven months after she arrested a 69-year-old man who was using a golf club as a cane to lean on. Last summer, Whitlatch arrested William Wingate for refusing to drop the golf club and for allegedly swinging it at her—but even though video of the incident did not back up Whitlatch's story, Wingate was charged with unlawful use of a weapon. Once prosecutors took a better look, the charges were dropped, however, and he got his golf club back along with an apology. Whitlatch initially got what sounded like a talking to and some retraining. However, after she made some post-Ferguson Facebook posts about "black paranoia," she was relegated to desk duty.

–Speaking of Seattle: A teacher there is suing the police department after he was pepper-sprayed in the face during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march. Jesse Hagopian can be seen in a video uploaded to YouTube crossing the street while chatting on his cell phone, and then abruptly being sprayed in the face by the officer. She appears to be acting unprovoked, while her fellow bike cops stand around looking underwhelmed. The NAACP is backing Hagopian's lawsuit.

–John B. Greer was fatally shot by Fairfax County, Virginia, police in August 2013 while standing on his own stoop. Since then there has been a disturbing pattern of stonewalling from police over the details of the incident. Finally, on Saturday, the Washington Post reported that four police officers say Greer had his hands up when he was shot. Adam D. Torres was 17 feet away from Greer when he says the man began to move his hands down, resulting the barrage of bullets. But the four other officers say that Greer did nothing of the sort. The "blue wall of silence" is legendary, so if four other cops say a domestic dispute suspect wasn't lowering his hands, it seems likely he wasn't lowering his hands. Torres, for his part, continues to defend the shooting as legitimate.

–Former California Highway Patrolman Sean Harrington won't go to jail for stealing nude pictures off the phones of drunk-driving suspects, but he will receive a 180-day suspended sentence, as well as three years of probation. Harrington also has to give a community speech about how he was a dick. If nothing else, lets hope he won't ever be a law enforcement officer again.

–On Thursday, a bill was introduced in the Minnesota state legislature that would keep police dash-cam footage private, and therefore inaccessable to anyone except the cops and the subjects of the videos. There are unquestionably privacy concerns at work when the police are always on film, but making potential footage of police misconduct out of the reach of the press and public is not the answer to that legitimate concern.

–It's official: Detroit Police Officer Joseph Weekley will not face any charges for killing seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones during a 2010 police raid. Juries failed to render a verdict against Weekely twice before. In the fall, a judge dismissed manslaughter charges against Weekley and on Friday, the same judge dismissed charges of reckless use of a firearm. Stanley-Jones died during the search for a murder suspect, but even in those circumstances the deployment of a SWAT team (with a camera crew in tow) was still dangerous. Whether anyone will learn from Stanley-Jones's death, and whether policies on SWAT deployment will be changed, remains doubtful. But we now know nobody will be punished.

–St. Louis is on track to start a civilian oversight board, an idea that has a lot of support from the community. However, police union official Jeff Roorda is fighting against the plan, claiming that if it passed, police officers would be upset, and "incredibly reluctant to do their jobs... St. Louis would be a much more dangerous place than it is now." The subtle blackmail contained in that remark is disturbing. Good cops should accept that civilians have a stake in their jobs, and that they are allowed to keep an eye on them when they work.

–Speaking of good cops, our Good Cop of the Week is retired, but is still doing good works. Former Apex, North Carolina, officer Mike Wilson was driving with his wife on January 24 when they encountered a woman who had driven her car into the middle of a cold, deep creek and stranded herself on a sandbar. Wilson rescued the woman and even swam back to the car to confirm that there was nobody else in distress. If Wilson was this courageous during his tenure as a cop, he was a good cop indeed.

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