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License plate readers at center of Norcross arrest taken to Supreme Court

A relatively new piece of police technology — and whether or not it can produce probable cause for a traffic stop — will be at the center of debate Tuesday as the validity of a Norcross Police Department arrest is argued in front of the state’s highest court.

On Aug. 18, 2010, a Norcross police officer was using an automatic license plate recognition system while working the area of Mitchell Road. Known as LPRs for short, the systems are cameras mounted on squad cars that capture images of passing license plates, instantly checking them against statewide databases of outstanding arrest warrants.

On the day in question, the plate for a white Chevrolet Impala returned an active warrant for Enrique Sanchez, now 26 years old, for failure to appear in court on traffic citations he’d received while driving the car. The officer stopped the car and radioed for backup.

Behind the wheel, though, was Sanchez’s mother, Sonia Rodriguez.

The police officer ran a check on both Rodriguez and Ereka Williams, another female passenger in the car. As he reportedly waited for word on what to do about the other woman’s outstanding warrant in Florida, he and another officer received consent to search the vehicle and Williams’ purse.

“When the officer reached into the vehicle to obtain Williams’ purse, he smelled marijuana,” according to the Georgia Supreme Court. “The search uncovered four to five ounces of maijuana in the car and Williams’ purse.”

Both women were arrested. Rodriguez was charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute — a single count which she and her attorneys have now appealed all the way to Georgia’s highest court.

Defense attorney Eric Crawford contends in briefs that there was no proper justification for his client being stopped in the first place. He’ll make the argument in person Tuesday, continuing his attempt to have the seized marijuana ruled out as evidence against his client.

Even if a reasonable suspicion existed initially, Crawford argued, “it evaporated whent he officer made contact with the occupants of the vehicle and realized that neither female occupant of the vehicle was the wanted male whom he was seeking.” The trial judge reportedly said as much in court.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter disagrees.

The “use of autmoated license plate readers in assisting law enforcement to visually check license plates has consistently been deemed lawful for Fourth Amendment purposes,” he wrote in briefs, arguing that there is no expectation of privacy for a license plate that is in plain view.

The consent to search was voluntary, Porter said.