If you're in D.C. or the surrounding areas, your movements are likely being tracked in some capacity through either the district's network of surveillance cameras or through law enforcement's increasing use of license plate cameras.
Our D.C. criminal defense lawyers know that more and more, detectives are tapping into these resources in the course of investigating various crimes. It's fast becoming a tool that we see more often used against defendants in court in a vast array of cases.
Both the Washington Times and the Washington Post recently reported on this issue, as civil rights advocates argue that the scope of such recordings are overly-broad and may violate privacy laws.
The Times reported that investigators with the Metropolitan Police Department retrieved video from the district's 123 closed-circuit surveillance and red light cameras some 930 times last year. That represents an increase of 15 percent over 2011 and a nearly 30 percent increase from 2010, according to police data.
This trend is expected to continue. From January through May of this year, police have tapped into this resource a total of 530 times. At that rate, they will have made 1,200 requests by the end of the year.
The neighborhood crime cameras first appeared in the district back in 2006. They are now considered standard investigative tools for detectives.
There are a few rules regarding how detectives are allowed to use these feeds. For example, detectives have to make a formal request of a specific camera before they are allowed to obtain a download. However, it doesn't appear they are turned down very often, if ever, in one of these requests.
It's not even so much that police are hoping to find direct video evidence of an actual crime occurring. More likely, they are looking to spot the individual driving a getaway vehicle or to poke holes in a suspect's alibi.
This makes it all the more important for those suspected of involvement in a crime in D.C. to refrain from lying to police. You don't have to give them a statement. In fact, you shouldn't speak to them at all without your attorney present. Better to give them nothing than to try to throw them off with a lie, no matter how small. If police can disprove just one of your statements with the use of these cameras, your entire credibility could be shot. That means your statements and actions will be analyzed with even more heightened scrutiny.
The majority of the images being pulled are from neighborhood cameras. However, a number are also being retrieved from transportation department cameras. The figures cited above don't include footage requested from private surveillance cameras, such as those belonging to apartment complexes, businesses or residents.
Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union sounded the alarm over the fact that D.C.-area law enforcement, as well as those across the country, have amassed databases that tally the movements of millions of Americans over the course of several years through the use of license plate cameras.
Police agencies have these cameras affixed to their cruisers. The technology allows officers to immediately pull up information on an individual or vehicle based on the license plate. Generally, they would be looking for information such as whether the vehicle was reported stolen, alleged to have been involved in a crime or if the individual is driving on a suspended license.
However, even if the officer doesn't actually stop the person, the information recorded by that snapshot is stored in an internal database that police can use later for potential crime-solving.
In Maryland, for example, license plate data was collected some 85 million times last year. Of those, about one in 500 registered a hit, with the vast majority of those being for very minor offenses, such as a failure to comply with the state's emission-control or a lapsed registration. For every 1 million plates recorded, less than 50 were associated with any sort of a serious crime. That amounts to a hit rate of less than 1 percent, which is typical of the program.
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