Automated License Plate Reader Information Leads to Mail “Fishing” Suspect

by | May 26, 2020

United States v. Yang, 2020 WL 2110973 (9th Cir. 2020)

A surveillance camera caught Jay Yang “fishing” for mail at a post office on several occasions. Yang used a device inserted into the mail collection slot to pull deposited mail out through the slot. He was spotted driving a rented Yukon and a Budget rental truck on different occasions. A postal inspector contacted the truck rental agency and learned the truck had not been returned before the rental period expiration. He found the same result for the rented Yukon and learned it had been rented with a stolen credit card.

The rental agency told the postal inspector they considered the Yukon to be stolen but had not yet filed a police report. The agency had tried to access the Yukon’s GPS system and disable the vehicle, but someone had disabled the device in the Yukon. The postal inspector queried the LEARN automated license plate reader database and found a narrow range of addresses where the Yukon’s plate had been captured. Using that information, the inspector was able to locate the Yukon. Through additional diligent investigative work, he located Yang, who confessed to stealing mail from the post office.

The court’s holding in this case is very narrow: A person driving a rental car beyond the rental period who is on notice does not have an expectation of privacy in the car’s location.

Yang asked the court to suppress the information from the automated license plate reader database, claiming it violated his expectation in the privacy of his movements. In Carpenter v. United States (138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018)), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that “individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the whole of their physical movements.” Initial consideration of the data from the automated license plate reader database might suggest that the use of the data violates the Fourth Amendment.

In Yang’s case, however, the court crafted a narrow holding that allows use of the data to locate and identify Yang. The court held that “Yang has failed to establish that he has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the historical location information of the Yukon under the facts of this case.” Yang had not sought to extend the rental period; the rental company considered the vehicle to be stolen and had tried to repossess it by remotely disabling the Yukon. Under those circumstances, Yang did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in the location of the Yukon.

The court’s holding in this case is very narrow: A person driving a rental car beyond the rental period who is on notice (whether actual notice or some mechanical action such as trying to recover the car, including remotely disabling it) does not have an expectation of privacy in the car’s location. The court noted it was not deciding “whether a defendant has standing to object to a ‘search’ of a rental vehicle’s historical location information that was captured and uploaded to a database prior to the expiration of the rental agreement.” A concurring judge would have allowed the database query on the alternative grounds that “information in the database did not reveal the whole of Yang’s physical movements, and therefore did not infringe on that reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Stay tuned. The issue of using automated license plate reader databases will continue to be a point of Fourth Amendment litigation.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys. Subscribe here!

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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