3/8/2019California: Innocent Driver Sues Over License Plate Camera Arrest
A privacy advocate sues California cops after he and his brother are arrested at gunpoint because of a mistaken license plate camera hit.
A mistaken license plate camera reading triggered a high-risk, guns drawn traffic stop involving two innocent brothers in California. It turns out one of the brothers, Brian M. Hofer, is the chairman of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, a panel of citizens charged with advising the city council on the abuse of surveillance equipment. Brian and Jonathan Hofer in December launched a federal lawsuit against the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department for its deputies' failure to take any steps to verify the bogus automated license plate reader (ANPR, also known as ALPR) "hit" that sparked the incident. The case is scheduled for its first conference with US Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley at the end of the month.
On November 25, 2018, the Hofers had been driving south in a rental car on Interstate 80 on their way back to Oakland after having spent Thanksgiving with family. Deputy B. Gant was following when he received an automated plate reader alert that said the brothers' rental car was stolen. It was not. Deputy Gant activated his overhead lights and used the loudspeaker to order the Hofers off the freeway. So they pulled into a strip mall parking lot in San Pablo. Judge Corley earlier this year approved a subpoena that gave the Hofers surveillance camera video from a Ross Dress for Less Store that captured the incident.
After two more squad cars arrived on the scene, Deputy Gant told Brian Hofer that, "You probably have some idea what is going on." He said he had no idea what was happening. The brothers were then ordered to slowly exit the vehicle while the deputies had their guns drawn. Brian Hofer was handcuffed and placed in a squad car. Jonathan Hofer was told to get on his knees while another agitated deputy held a gun to his head "execution style," according to the complaint. Deputy K. Emley then slammed him into the ground.
"Neither Gant, Odom nor Emley made any attempt to identify Brian or Jonathan, nor communicate any information about what was occurring," Hofer's attorney, Glenn Katon, wrote.
A thorough search of the rental car turned up clothing in suitcases. After this, Deputy Gant listened to Brian Hofer's assertion that he used an app on the phone to rent the car from Getaround. The deputy called and confirmed that this was true. After 40 minutes, the brothers were released from custody.
The courts have ruled on similar incidents. In 2014, the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction in California, ruled that officers could be held liable for using excessive force against the victims of bogus license plate readings (view case). In Northumbria, England, a police officer responding to a mistaken plate reading struck and killed a teenage girl. He was sentenced to three years in jail.