Garbage In, Garbage Out: San Jose Considers Installing License Plate Readers On Garbage Trucks

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

garbage-truck-scaniaSan Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmen Johnny Khamis and Raul Peralez proposed installing license plate readers on garbage trucks. If there is one thing apparently that is important to the collection of your trash and rubbish it is reading every license plate in the neighborhood it seems. The city officials believe it will make a strong dent in the number of stolen and wanted vehicles left out in the street around garbage day.

The proposal involves installation of the readers and feeding the license data to the central computer system that serves the police department’s LPRs installed on patrol cars. It promises to be a monumentally cost inefficient system despite what city officials might claim. The civil liberties implications notwithstanding.

Psst, car thieves of California: be sure to take in your stolen car when you take out the trash.

We featured an article HERE describing this type of system of license plate readers.

Reportedly, the cost of fitting a police vehicle with the license plate reading system is about $34,200.00. While it is unknown if this type of cost will be applied to a garbage truck owned by a private corporation, it certainly describes well the amount of money involved.

In our sister article the Oakland Police Department reported approximately .16% of all license plates read resulted in a hit on a wanted vehicle. Yet, the city here spends over thirty four thousand per vehicle to read these plates. Now, there is this  proposal to equip a number of garbage trucks. Why is this a poor cost benefit?

First, San Jose is the tenth largest city in the United States. The number of garbage trucks that would be required to read each neighborhood, a goal of these city officials, is likely to be in the hundreds. To make such a system effective would require each truck on duty to carry a reader or, alternatively, have few trucks that are rotated. The advantage of the former would be a quicker turn around time for reads of neighborhoods, that is once per week. The disadvantage is certainly cost. In the latter scenario having few trucks that are rotated makes the probability of finding stolen vehicles nearly consistent with mere chance and luck.

The best element of assessing cost/benefit would be to estimate the cost of the system per vehicle recovered. Few would agree that if the cost per recovery was a few thousand dollars, it would not merit such expense but it could easily be the case.

Additionally, if the wanted vehicle discovered is moving, the data is of almost no value to the police because, frankly, garbage trucks generally do not pull over stolen vehicles. The police are not going to be around when the hits occur unlike a police vehicle mounted system where they obviously will.

Privacy issues aside, this is not a reasonable use of the city’s money–especially when the department is reportedly reducing its staffing levels.

By Darren Smith


San Jose Mercury News

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43 thoughts on “Garbage In, Garbage Out: San Jose Considers Installing License Plate Readers On Garbage Trucks”

  1. stevegroen,

    You’re welcome.

    The city’s “hot list” of vehicles related to crimes is compared to the data (plate #s) gathered. Therefore, the court said, that it’s all investigative. If the data is gathered on behalf of the city or PD, even by a contractor, I suspect the courts will find the investigative nexus.


  2. Part of the CA appellate court’s decision refers to the license plate readers as”..part of specific criminal investigations…that produce the “hot list” of license plate numbers.”
    My understanding is that the systems scans plates that may match “wanted” vehicles or owners.
    If that “hot list” pinged/alerted when it had a” hit”on the hot list, DISGARDING all other numbers, then the belief that this is about “specific criminal investigations” would have more merit.
    My understanding in this case is that L.A. area law enforcement retains millions of license numbers for at least two years.
    That seems to undercut the view that this massive data mining and retention is about “specific criminal investigations.”

  3. Steve, When I first moved here the Cheeseheads would tell me, “Yah hey, you gotta up up dere to Door County, yah hey. It’s just like your Cape Cod, where you grew up yah hey!” These are the most provincial people in the US so I took what they said so proudly w/ a grain of salt. They think everything is the best in Wisconsin. But, they were pretty accurate. The east side of Door County up toward the tip does look a lot like Cape Cod. But, the only fish is fairly pedestrian whitefish, boiled w/ kerosene. The Cape has some of the best seafood in the US.

    I agree, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy since your plates, when parked in public, are public. But, it goes back to what I said. ANY information collected by the govt. can be, and often is, used for illegal purposes. Collecting the plates of everyone attending a political rally is chilling. Of course, the reason is SECURITY! The same reason the NSA uses for metadata collection.

  4. Annie: I used to run long distance when I lived up there. I’d just gotten out of the military service, and moved up there because my mom had moved up there. I loved the outdoors. There was nothing I liked better than when it was 10 degrees outside after a good snow, sunny without a cloud in the sky, and the streets were quiet without traffic. Bundling up and out for a romp. Running at the lake shore was a special treat, too, from the War Memorial up through Shorewood. And autumn. It’s tough to beat autumn in Wisconsin. I sometimes miss it for its version of stability and sanity, too, but I’ve been spoiled by the highly expensive weather here. Cheers!

    Nick: Door County was where I last lived before I came to San Diego with my girlfriend and two farm cats from Fish Creek. That’s all ancient history, now, but I loved it up there. Fishin’ for whales and spinnin’ tales.

  5. Steve,
    I live in Waukesha County and love my state of Wisconsin. There are a few who live here who rarely say anything good about it, which is really too bad. Two of my kids graduated from UW Milwaukee and one from UW Madison. My military daughter lived in CA for a few years and couldn’t wait to get back to WI. For the beauty of the lakes and forests, the deep greens and blue of WI lured her back.

  6. Steve, The Secret Service use license plate readers @ political rallies. I learned about this a while ago from a detective I know who worked w/ a Secret Service advance team back during the 2008 election. These license plate readers have been under the radar just like the metadata collection by NSA and the GPS units used w/o warrants. This is Big Brother and we need someone to challenge the constitutionality of indiscriminate collection of license plates. Maybe a case for JT?

    1. So, with regard to license plates, what is the point at which no expectation of privacy becomes an expectation of privacy? Only when the car is in the garage and the garage door closed? Obviously, a cop or the secret service has always been able to collect data from the license plate of a car sitting on the street and no one seems to blink an eye if it is a reasonable part of an investigation, but what if s/he doesn’t have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed and the dude who drove it or owns it did it? I don’t think s/he can constitutionally unless there’s some waiver of privacy as to a license plate’s information by statute.

      It may be built into the vehicle code here, as an inconvenience in exchange for the privilege to drive, but I don’t know for sure. It’s an issue that certainly has some layers to it, but storing data by “indiscriminate” photographic vacuum cleaner doesn’t seem to survive the smell test.

  7. Steve, If you saw this woman and how she acted you would have no doubt she was autistic. I agree about the 4th amendment issue. But, I think a major client for your guy’s son would be businesses, wanting to know people who live, work, shop, etc. in a certain neighborhood. In Wisconsin car dealers cannot open on Sunday. So, many people like to go to the car dealer’s lots and look @ cars on Sunday w/o having a salesman hassle them. Some dealerships have guys stake out the lots, get license plates of browsing shoppers, and then “cold call” them during the week. That has gotten exponentially tougher w/ cell phones and no call lists. Here’s where someone can make a ton of money, coming up w/ an online directory of cell phones numbers.

    1. Nick: “I think a major client for your guy’s son would be businesses.” Maybe, and I hadn’t thought of it like that. I haven’t seen him in about a year. Next time I see him, I’ll press him on their clientele. He didn’t seem to know much about the marketing of the product then, however. Strictly up and down the streets for him, and the more license plates the more income apparently.

      Thanks for sharing the WI info. My mother, sister, nieces, and nephews still live up in Waukesha (I never lived outside the snobbish East Side of Milwaukee while I attended UWM and in Door County during the summers for a couple of years after I graduated, traveling during the winters), so though it hasn’t been home since 1986, for the most part I enjoyed my seven years up there.

  8. This sounds like Big Brother, and yet another example of how the politicians seem to have no concept that they are spending other people’s money. It is so easy to spend money when it’s not your own, and you don’t empathize with the cost to taxpayers. Politicians doing a cost-benefit analysis seems like a pipe dream.

  9. Gone are the days when privacy was secured.
    Welcome to the days of pre-crime… Minority Report.
    That’s right, if you haven’t done anything wrong… (insert adult word for male cow pooping)!

    Welcome to the days when it’s fashionable to toss away one’s privacy.
    Security, they called it. Terrorism was the clarion call. The enemy is at the gate.
    I.D. Retinal scan. Finger print. Bio I.D. Facial I.D. Online status. E-mail check.

    Yep, the USA Government has ya covered…

  10. Nick: That story is interesting. What was your conclusion as to whether she was intended to appear disheveled?

    My longtime investigator’s son works for a company that takes photos of license plates, and he says the photos are then sold to whomever, including government agencies (which I’d bet are the major if not only buyer). He says that on a good day he can photograph 15,000 plates in San Diego County. That 4th Amendment search loophole should be closed.

  11. In ACLU Foundation of Southern California v. Superior Court, 236 Cal.App.4th 673 (2015), the California Court of Appeals, declared, “Contrary to [ACLU]’s premise, the plate scans performed by the [video] system are precipitated by specific criminal investigations—namely, the investigations that produced the “hot list” of license plate numbers associated with suspected crimes. As Real Parties’ experts both testified, the …system’s principal purpose is to check license plates against the hot list to determine whether a vehicle is connected to a crime under investigation. In this way, the … system replicates, albeit on a vastly larger scale, a type of investigation that officers routinely perform manually by visually reading a license plate and entering the plate number into a computer to determine whether a subject vehicle might be stolen or otherwise associated with a crime. The fact that the … system automates this process does not make it any less an investigation….

    1. Feyd Rautha: Thanks for the cite. That pretty much sums up the matter here (pending review by the California Supreme Court, if granted): license plate scanning is exempt under an exemption in the California Public Records Act. What it doesn’t do, however, is determine whether private “indiscriminate” scanning sold to public agencies are “Records of Investigation” from which the exemption arises. It doesn’t seem like it would be.

      The strongest argument for the exemption appears to be that the automatic scanner on a police vehicle simply does what an officer could but only at a much faster rate.

      I suppose we’ll now begin to see (if they’re not already on the streets) parking meter enforcement vehicles driving city streets taking pictures to make sure that it’s part of “Records of Investigation,” which under the CPRA can be maintained for five years and used in future investigations.

      The appellate opinion made it a good day for law enforcement, but it set in stone intrusive data mining if it can be used in future investigations. We’ll see what the California Supreme Court does. I have no doubt SCOTUS would side with LAPD and LASD.

  12. The photo in the article is of a front-loading trash hauling truck which is usually operated by private trash disposal companies which increases the crime rate and Apart from cars being stolen it will also reduce on the number of crimes committed because terrorists also take advantage of such cars with registration plates.

  13. TSA also has a fully equipped state of the art trucks/Vans/buses that sit in the airport parking lots and scan license plates as they drive through the parking lots/garages. I’ve seen it and been in it. So if you ever see a big white truck/van/bus with plain tire rims and just a number on the tag, that’s one of those devices.

  14. Simple solution: Include a little special ‘gift’ in your garbage …

  15. Ross – Since when do laws stop the government from doing what they want.

    I started noticing that my IPhone would just light up by itself, without being touched with no notifications. Also I noticed that I had to recharge my phone three times on Wednesday’s and Friday’s. Being that I was a white hat hacker, I felt someone was monitoring my phone and activities. So I got a new phone and have not had an issue. . . Yet.

    I also keep a piece of tape over my laptop camera and my phone. Only remove it to take a picture. I also disconnect my laptop from my internet every night. I wanted to do a forensic exam of my phone before I got a new one but it wouldn’t have mattered what I found. But I can tell people who don’t want to take the chance of this happening to them would be to put your phones completely in a tin foiled compartment or microwave or stove, when not in use. This government is way out of control.

  16. I thought Conservatives hate the Nanny State… with her baby monitors and free hand outs.

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