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Councilwoman Wants To Use License Plate Readers In A Really Creepy Way

Photo by Zach Behrens/LAist
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A Los Angeles councilwoman wants to use creepy license plate readers to send warning letters to drivers who haven't even committed a crime.Last Wednesday, the L.A. City Council voted to ask the city attorney's office to weigh in on sending so-called "john letters" to the owners of cars that are spotted on streets known for prostitution. The letters are meant to discourage "johns," or those who solicit sex-workers, who frequent the area, but would also be sent as a warning to drivers who haven't done anything illegal.

"If you aren't soliciting, you have no reason to worry about finding one of these letters in your mailbox," said Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who proposed the idea, in a statement on Wednesday. "But if you are, these letters will discourage you from returning." Martinez, whose district covers much of the Valley, has made fighting prostitution and human trafficking a priority. "Soliciting for sex in our neighborhoods is not OK," she added.

As well-intentioned the proposal may be, it has raised a few eyebrows among privacy advocates. "What happens if you have legitimate reason to be in a neighborhood?" asked Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). According to the L.A. Daily News, the EFF already has an ongoing lawsuit against the LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff's Department over the collection of license place data.

"There isn't 'potential' for abuse here," Nick Selby, a police detective who "generally [supports] the use of license plate readers," writes in Medium. "This is a legislated abuse of technology that is already controversial when it’s used by police for the purpose of seeking stolen vehicles, tracking down fugitives and solving specific crimes." Selby goes on to say that the idea proposed by Martinez is "chilling" and allows law enforcement to "take action against those guilty of nothing other than traveling legally on city streets."

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"John letters" are already used by dozens of cities across the United States and according to the AP, usually written in a manner that is meant to be a warning and does not assume the owner was also the driver caught by the reader.