Many new laws went into effect on September 30, 2018, and one of the new ones that may be a good thing for Montana drivers is the law restricting the use of license plate readers by law enforcement. License plate readers are devices capable of recording and storing license plate information from passing vehicles. They function similarly to typical video cameras but feature specialized software that pinpoints and records license plate numbers.

Prior to the new law, police could install license plate readers on speed warning signs to record drivers, penalizing them later. The new law in Montana restricts the use of license plate readers to vehicles involved in specific criminal cases or those used for illegal activity. Law enforcement agencies still have permission to use automatic license plate readers to track their own vehicles, however.

If you believe you’ve been unfairly ticketed, contact our office to schedule a free consultation with a Billings car accident attorney.

Reasoning for the New License Plate Reader Law

The state legislature has limited the time law enforcement can use data stored in a license plate reader to 90 days from the date of recording. Law enforcement must also track access to these databases indefinitely, so there is a long-standing record of everyone who has accessed a license plate reader. Police departments must also develop written policies for the use, handling, and accessing of license plate reader data.

Some of the approved uses of license plate readers in Montana now include:

  • Identifying and tracking stolen vehicles.
  • Identifying vehicles involved in major crimes, such as homicides.
  • Locating kidnapped children and other missing persons.
  • Case-specific investigation.
  • Locating individuals with outstanding arrest warrants.

The reasoning behind these changes, according to the state Legislature, is that a license plate match alone cannot constitute reasonable suspicion for a police officer to stop a vehicle and issue a citation. Many Americans, both citizens and lawmakers, have stated that a national license plate tracking program is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, and limiting data retention on license plate readers to 90 days prevents collection into a national tracking database.

Your Rights During a Traffic Stop

It’s important for Montana drivers to know their rights and the legal grounds for a police officer to perform a traffic stop. Under the new automatic license plate reader law, an officer cannot stop you for a matching plate unless there is an open case against you or a warrant for your arrest. The officer must have probable cause to conduct a stop, such as erratic driving, swerving across a double line, or a moving violation.

You have the right to film or record a traffic stop if you believe the officer did not have probable cause to conduct the stop. You also do not have to consent to a search unless the officer has a warrant to do so. Unless the officer has probable cause, you can directly state that you do not consent to a search. You also have the right to remain silent. You do not have to answer the officer’s questions, but being rude or antagonistic can easily work against you later.

Contact an Attorney

If you believe a police officer has violated your constitutional rights, illegally detained you, or otherwise violated your constitutional protection against search and seizure, you should speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. If the police charge you with a crime, you may wind up in booking, but do not say anything until you have an attorney.

You have the right to remain silent, and the police will remind you that anything you say will go on official record and may work against you later. If you face a wrongful arrest, the best thing you can do is to stay quiet until you have a lawyer on your side.