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Can police tell if your car is insured by running your license plate?

April 7, 2015 by Steven M. Gursten

Yes they can! In-car computers allow police to now use license plate info to access insurance status via law enforcement database

police in car system scan license plates

There’s a new development that allows Michigan police a quick and easy way of determining whether a pulled-over motorist is “riding dirty on the streets of Michigan,” according to MLive reporter Cole Waterman.

“Riding dirty” is used as slang for people driving without auto insurance on their cars.

In his recent story, “Driving without insurance? Police in Michigan can now tell just by running your plate,” Waterman reports:

Through the use of “‘an in-car computer,’” “police throughout the state can determine if a motor vehicle is properly insured simply by running its license plate.”

As an attorney, this is welcome news.

For uninsured drivers, and those who choose to drive dirty, not so much.

People need to first understand that the consequences of driving without auto insurance in Michigan are incredibly harsh. The sad part for me, as an attorney, is that people always find out the hard way – after an accident has occurred and when they learn the draconian nature of Michigan law. Completely innocent drivers who are catastrophically injured due to the carelessness of another actually lose their 7th Amendment right to even bring a lawsuit for their injuries and pain and suffering under Michigan law. And this law (just as the insurance industry intended when they pushed for its enactment in 1995) predominantly impacts the poor and minority communities in cities like Detroit, where it’s now estimated that 50% or more of all drivers are driving without auto insurance.

Making it quick and easy for  police to check drivers’ auto insurance status makes Michigan’s roads safer for all of us. Hopefully, the number of uninsured drivers on our roads will be dramatically reduced when word spreads.

Here’s the way the system works:

  • Insurance companies notify the Michigan Secretary of State what drivers are insured.
  • The SOS makes the data available to the “Law Enforcement Information Network” or LEIN.
  • Police can access the LEIN system’s insurance via their in-car computers.

Significantly, the LEIN insurance information is not to be used by law enforcement as the sole basis for a traffic stop.

Michigan State Police spokeswoman Shanon Banner told MLive’s Waterman:

“Our department [the Michigan State Police] policy indicates that this electronic insurance verification should not be used as the primary reason for a traffic stop. It’s kind of a first step. It helps them in the investigative process.”

Why this is a development that makes everyone safer

People without insurance are not going to like this. And I am sympathetic. I’ve been interviewed by the media many times on the reasons people drive without insurance, and it’s much more complicated than many people believe. For many uninsured people, the choice often comes between putting food on the table and insuring the car.  This impact is felt more in cities like Detroit, where rates are higher than in the suburbs and the impact is disproportionately harder on the people least able to afford it.

But make no mistake. This is a positive development.

Based on my 20-year legal career of helping people injured in car, truck and motorcycle crashes, I’ve seen first-hand the dangers of driving without auto insurance. Rarely a week has gone by where I have not spoken to someone who is severely injured, and who nevertheless is completely barred from recovering any compensation or even help with their medical bills, because they were driving uninsured.

I believe this will help reduce Michigan’s uninsured driver problem (epidemic) in two important ways as word spreads that police can now run insurance status from checking license plates:

What about drivers’ privacy concerns?

Although there has not yet been a specific case addressing the constitutionality of using the LEIN system to check drivers’ insurance status, a 2006 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which includes the state of Michigan) suggests no Fourth Amendment constitutional violation will be found.

In U.S. v. Ellison, a two-judge majority concluded the following about a police officer’s investigation of “an automobile license plate number using [the LEIN] law enforcement computer database”:

“[A] motorist has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information contained on his license plate under the Fourth Amendment.”

The court also ruled out the notion that the police officer’s entry of the non-private license plate information in the “law enforcement computer database” created a constitutionally protected “privacy interest” for the motorist.

The information retrieved from the database, said the court, was “non-private information.”

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