Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Could license-plate readers, placed along America's highways, shine light on shooting into David Roberson's vehicle -- after yielding clues on Jan. 6 riot?

License plate reading camera

Did you know license-plate readers have been strategically placed along many American highways? It was news to me, and civil liberties groups are concerned about privacy implications. But as crime-fighting tools, the readers have proven invaluable. The readers, and other high-tech devices, have helped federal authorities bring charges against several hundred suspects in the investigation of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, according to a report at The Washington Post (WaPo).

The issue is of special interest here at Legal Schnauzer because of an incident in late February where someone shot into the car of former Drummond Company executive David Roberson as he drove on U.S. 280 near Birmingham. Are license-plate readers placed along 280? If so, is law-enforcement checking them for clues on the Roberson shooting? We aren't sure about the answer to the first question, but we've seen little sign of any serious investigation into the shooting.That raises this question: why? Is an apparent assassination attempt not deserving of scrutiny?

The WaPo report is based on review of more than 1,000 pages of arrest records, FBI affidavits and search warrants, detailing one of the biggest criminal investigations in American history. Almost 700 suspects have been charged in the melee that shook the nation’s capital and left five people dead.  

(Note: Despite progress in the probe, Ali [Akbar] Alexander [he of Alabama ties via Montgomery lawyer Baron Coleman] apparently remains in hiding, even though he is identified as the organizer of the "Stop the Steal" rally that turned into an assault on the Capitol. Alexander appears to have ties to Roger Stone and the Proud Boys -- and at least one of the group's leaders reportedly has been an FBI informant, raising the question: Is Alexander serving in a similar role or is someone protecting him for some reason?)

Reports WaPo on the investigation:

The federal documents provide a rare view of the ways investigators exploit the digital fingerprints nearly everyone leaves behind in an era of pervasive surveillance and constant online connection. They illustrate the power law enforcement now has to hunt down suspects by studying the contours of faces, the movements of vehicles and even conversations with friends and spouses.

The cache of federal documents lays out a sprawling mix of FBI techniques: license plate readers that captured suspects’ cars on the way to Washington; cell-tower location records that chronicled their movements through the Capitol complex; facial recognition searches that matched images to suspects’ driver’s licenses or social media profiles; and a remarkably deep catalogue of video from surveillance systems, live streams, news reports and cameras worn by the police who swarmed the Capitol that day.

Agents in nearly all of the FBI’s 56 field offices have executed at least 900 search warrants in all 50 states and D.C., many of them for data held by the telecommunications and technology giants whose services underpin most people’s digital lives. The responses supplied potentially incriminating details about the locations, online statements and identities of hundreds of suspects in an investigation the Justice Department called in a court motion last month “one of the largest in American history, both in terms of the number of defendants prosecuted and the nature and volume of the evidence.”

“If the event happened 20 years ago, it would have been 100 times harder to identify these people,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a D.C.-based think tank. “But today it’s almost impossible not to leave your footprints somewhere.”

As for license-plate readers, WaPo reports: 

License plate readers and facial recognition software together played a documented role in helping identify suspects in nearly a dozen cases, the federal records show. In many cases, agents used existing government contracts to access privately maintained databases that required no court approval. In several cases, including for facial recognition searches, it’s unclear what software the government used to build the cases for arrests.

Is the technology flawless? No:

The FBI declined to comment for this story. Most of the incidents described remain allegations.

Many cases hinge on imperfect technology and fallible digital evidence that could undermine prosecutors’ claims. Blurry license plate reader images, imprecise location tracking systems, misunderstood social media posts and misidentified facial recognition matches all could muddy an investigation or falsely implicate an innocent person.

But license-plate readers tracked some suspects numerous times throughout their trip to D.C.:

One man from New York’s Hudson Valley, William Vogel, had his round-trip voyage to D.C. photographed by license plate readers at least nine times on Jan. 6, from the Henry Hudson Bridge in the Bronx at 6:06:08 that morning to Baltimore’s Harbor Tunnel Thruway at 9:15:27 a.m. and back to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J., at 11:59:22 that night, a criminal complaint claims.

Vogel generated more evidence of his presence inside the Capitol with a set of videos he posted to Snapchat, the complaint said. And though no license plate scanners captured his car in D.C., they offered other clues to his movement: A photo that morning from a stretch of Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore showed a comically oversized “Make America Great Again” hat on Vogel’s dashboard. Agents said in the complaint that they later matched it to a Facebook selfie in which he appeared to be wearing “the same large red hat.”

Installed on thousands of streetlights, speed cameras, toll booths, police cars and tow trucks across the United States, the scanners record every passing vehicle into databases run by contractors such as Vigilant Systems, which reports that it has recorded 5 billion license plate locations nationwide. In Maryland alone, government and police scanners captured more than 500 million plates last year, state data shows.

Dominick Madden, a New York City sanitation worker who was on sick leave when he allegedly stormed the Capitol, had his car’s license plate scanned half a dozen times in his round-trip journey to Washington, a criminal complaint states. Madden was also allegedly caught on video walking through the Capitol’s Senate wing in a blue QAnon sweatshirt. . . . .

The documents highlight just how much digital evidence an ordinary person sheds in everyday life: In one case, prosecutors said they gathered more than 12,000 pages of data from a suspect’s phone using Cellebrite, a tool popular with law enforcement for its ability to penetrate locked phones and copy their contents. The search also recovered 2,600 pages of Facebook records and 800 cellphone photos and videos. 


David Roberson's vehicle after shooting on 280



Anonymous said...

Is this part of the U.S. becoming a surveillance state? I'm all for solving crimes, but I can understand the civil liberties concerns here.

Anonymous said...

God, you can't even drive down the road and pick your nose or scratch yourself in private anymore.

legalschnauzer said...

Seems strange that someone would shoot into a vehicle on U.S. 28 near Birmingham, and no investigators -- federal or state -- seem interested. Is attempted assassination now OK with American law enforcement?

Brian said...

Did it just break one window? If so the bullet or what ever object broke the window should still be in the car.

Cameras that collect license plate data are usually speed cameras, red light cameras, or collecting data on what vehicles are using toll roads or express lanes. While legal to be used in Alabama, not many in use yet. It is more likely that a dashcam or a business's security system saw something.