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Are licence plates fair game for random police checks?

We were pulled over by police recently. The officer had run my plates and found that my driver's licence had expired three weeks earlier. Luckily, my husband was driving and I just got a warning. I was surprised, partially because I hadn't realized that my licence had expired, but mostly because I didn't think police were allowed to check your licence plates unless you'd committed a crime. Are they allowed to go fishing like that? – Rose, Vancouver

You might have secrets, but your licence plate number isn't one of them.

"There's absolutely no problem or civil libertarian issue for police to check your licence plate, because of what's called the 'plain view doctrine' – objects that are in plain view do not constitute a search under the Charter," said Alan Young, associate professor at York University's Osgoode Hall law school. "Once your car leaves your garage, anybody can check your licence plate."

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So, police across the country are allowed to randomly check plates – and they do.

"Although the sections of the Highway Traffic Act vary from one province to another, these afford authority for police officers to stop motor vehicles," the RCMP said in an e-mail statement. "Police officers do not require a reason to query licence plates as the plates are identifications which are used to identify the vehicles and their owners."

Most police forces use automated licence plate recognition (ALPR), where cruiser-mounted infrared cameras snap photos of up to 3,000 plates an hour – catching cars in both directions at more than 100 km/h.

The system checks the plate to see if it's on a hit list that includes expired or suspended licences. It also connects to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) to checks plates that are reported stolen or associated with warrants or Amber Alerts.

In some provinces, including British Columbia, that list might include drivers with expired insurance. When the system gets a hit, it alerts officers in the car.

Driving is a "privilege"

"We have to remember that driving is a privilege and not a right," said Sergeant Jason Robillard, Vancouver police spokesman, in an e-mail. "We can query licence plates without observing an overt act, simply to check on the status and validity of the vehicle and the registered owners – the ability to query licence plates is a great tool for police to help keep the roads safe."

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And police say ALPR helps them find things – such as drivers with expired licences – that they might not find otherwise.

"People can be driving a Mercedes and have a suspended licence for drunk driving," said Leutenant Jason Allard, Sûreté du Québec spokesman. "It's the most subjective system we have."

But, random plate checking – as opposed to looking for a specific vehicle because there's a warrant out – is supposed to be exactly that: random.

"Let's say you have an officer who you can document has only checked licence plates from African-Canadians," Young said. "Then you have a constitutional issue – but the question is one of proof."

When can police pull you over?

Police can run your plates any time, even if they're not on the hit list. And whenever they find something, police can pull you over.

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Even though police say everybody is treated equally, they might not be, said Toronto criminal lawyer R. Roots Gadhia.

"It becomes invasive, if, for example, they see a young black male in the car and they punch in the driver's plate because they want to see who's driving," Gadhia said.

And, police can stop you even if they don't find something. They can pull you over if you've broken a traffic law – or just to check your licence, registration and insurance status, mechanical fitness of the vehicle or whether you're sober.

"Any person on road can be stopped by an officer for almost any reason, even just to check your documentation," Gadhia said. "Admittedly, some officers will abuse that power and go after individuals in a targeting manner. They may say your tail light is out or you didn't signal, which are petty Highway Traffic Act offences, but it may elevate from there to a search or detention."

If you're stopped by police for any reason, be polite, Gadhia said.

"Being rude to an officer can spin out of control," she said. "Have your documents in order and ask him specifically, 'Can I ask the reason why I'm being pulled over?' "

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If you don't agree with what the officer is saying, don't argue.

"Wait it out and see if they'll ticket you," Gadhia said. "If they do ticket you, then fight it [in court]. Just don't fight with the officer."

Privacy concerns?

Licence-plate scanners record thousands of plates every day – even if your plate isn't on the hit list. The system still records the date, time and location of where you were scanned – even though you haven't committed an offence. For instance, a database could potentially show where you were parked at 7 p.m. last Tuesday.

"You could collect a pretty good idea of where people are at various times if you wanted to use it as a surveillance tool," said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. "When there's no offence, that non-hit data should not be retained." Policies on how long the data is retained vary by province, McPhail said. In 2012, B.C.'s Privacy Commissioner told Victoria police to stop sharing non-hit data with the RCMP.

Now in British Columbia, the non-hit licence plate numbers are deleted at the end of every day – which should be done everywhere, McPhail said. "They'll still record the date and time and GPS co-ordinates – but no licence plate."

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