By Colonel Ronald K. Replogle, Superintendent, Missouri State Highway Patrol, and Member, IACP Highway Safety Committee; and Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP
he license plate remains a vital, cost-effective, and readily identifiable law enforcement tool. Every U.S. state and Canadian province mandates its display, and information concerning any plate is accessible to police officers in real time. Noncompliance with a jurisdiction’s vehicle registration laws objectively provides probable cause to believe a violation is occurring and has been demonstrated time and again to be a gateway to clearing serious crime. The basis for choosing this year’s Looking Beyond the License Plate award grand prize winner is considerably different from past selections because the winner’s application stood out as an innovative and creative means of, appropriately, looking beyond the license plate to consistently apprehend murderers and other felons who have committed heinous violent crimes rather than discover serious crime based on a single traffic stop.
The 3M Traffic Safety Systems Division has recognized the crucial role that license plates play in crime detection and has partnered with the IACP Highway Safety Committee since 1998 to recognize police officers who use license plates to solve serious, nontraffic-related crimes. Past grand prize winners have been responsible for the capture of one of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives; the apprehension of one of the U.S. Marshal’s 15 Most Wanted Fugitives in Canada; the prevention of a third homicide by an individual transporting two corpses in his vehicle’s trunk; the arrest of two suspects involved in the armed robbery and the attempted first-degree murder of a Maryland restaurant manager; the prompt arrest of the perpetrator of multiple vicious abductions in Northern Virginia; and the apprehension of Timothy J. McVeigh just 75 minutes after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The IACP Highway Safety Committee unanimously selected Officer William E. Dempster of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) as the grand prize winner of the 2012 Looking Beyond the License Plate award. Dempster has been assigned to the Sixth District’s Auto Theft Unit since 2005 and has succeeded in solving crimes through a combination of focused interviewing and the MPD’s license plate reader (LPR) system. He regularly responds to crime scenes and works closely with witnesses to glean as much information as possible about the characteristics of the vehicles involved and about the color, the state of registration, and the partial tag numbers of the license plates displayed. His innovative and creative technique solved the following six major cases in the first three months of 2012.
- A January 1 alert for “failure to return rental vehicle” connected the vehicle’s driver and passenger to the vehicle’s theft from an airport rental agency, as well as to a major fraudulent identity scheme involving an estimated $500,000 in goods, services, and rental cars. On the basis of a search and seizure warrant for the apartment these two individuals shared, Dempster discovered fake identifications, cloned credit cards, rental documents, and even a fraudulently obtained purebred puppy purchased via the Internet.
- After hearing a January 14 police radio broadcast concerning a shooting in which the victim sustained a lethal gunshot wound to the head, Dempster noticed alerts from two stationary LPR cameras in the vicinity of the shooting to the license plate on a stolen Jeep Cherokee. He located that vehicle, from which its three occupants fled after crashing. However, along with other officers, he arrested two of the three homicide suspects.
- Partial license plate information obtained in conjunction with the ongoing multijurisdictional investigation of several armed robberies and carjackings that had occurred over a weekend led Dempster on January 14 to a witness who was able to provide the color of the license plate, as well as clues about its state of origin. He then viewed—one-by-one—more than 1,000 LPR images before identifying the license plate sought and determining that it had been displayed on different vehicles. Dempster obtained search and seizure warrants for several locations and positively linked that license plate and four suspects to these serious crimes. Additionally, the suspects have been connected to auto thefts, carjackings, multiple robberies, and sexual assaults.
- On February 1, suspects robbed at gunpoint a small grocery store and fled in a black Mercedes-Benz with Maryland license plates. Using a partial license number provided by a witness, Dempster was able to discover a license plate that possibly had been displayed on a stolen vehicle. Using this information, he found that a stationary LPR camera had captured the license plate on a Mercedes-Benz in the area of the crime scene. That vehicle has been recovered and is being analyzed forensically.
- On February 26, two senior citizens in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, were beaten and robbed of the laptop computer they had just purchased. Witnesses provided the license plate number and a description of the BMW in which the accused fled. The same vehicle was utilized in another Maryland robbery on February 27. Dempster determined via the LPR system that the BMW had traveled between two District of Columbia neighborhoods twice on February 26. The BMW was recovered, a suspect was positively identified from a photograph, the suspect and his brother were charged in these cases, and evidentiary material was seized.
- On March 6, a verbal argument in a restaurant escalated into a fight with one of those involved being stabbed. Dempster re-interviewed witnesses, obtaining a more accurate description of the license plate; ascertained, within 30 minutes of the stabbing, the correct license plate and getaway vehicle, which the LPR system placed in the vicinity of the crime scene; and arrested the accused within hours of the initial crime.
Four other police officers were recognized by Highway Safety Committee judges to receive honorable mentions for their initiative in solving serious crimes in 2011 and 2012 via this fundamental tool, which is divorced from a driver’s race, ethnicity, or sex. Their stories follow.
- Officer Terry Uhrich of the California Highway Patrol observed, on October 5, 2011, what he believed to be a disabled vehicle and offered assistance to the persons standing next to it. They declined Uhrich’s offer. However, as he was leaving that location, he recalled an earlier lookout for a stolen vehicle displaying Oregon license plates. The officer returned to the area, obtained the front license plate number, and initiated a registration check that revealed the vehicle was wanted in connection with multiple murders. While awaiting backup, Uhrich followed the vehicle until it stopped on its own at which time he initiated a felony stop and the accused were taken into custody without incident, even though they possessed two loaded handguns and a rifle. They were wanted in connection with two murders in the state of Washington, one in Oregon, and another 12 hours earlier in California. They indicated they planned to travel south and kill innocent people.
- Officer Kevin M. Schulz of the Topeka, Kansas, Police Department observed, on January 2, a vehicle displaying an expired temporary license plate leave an illegal drug–related, high-crime area and stopped the vehicle, which fled as Schulz approached it. That vehicle’s driver subsequently abandoned the vehicle while it was still moving. The vehicle’s purchase information and temporary license plate led officers to its owner, who advised police that her boyfriend had been driving it. Officers observed in plain view narcotics and a handgun and secured a search and seizure warrant. Schulz’s traffic stop led to the issuance of a total of six search and seizure warrants; the closure of 80 separate burglary cases, 50 of which involved storage units broken into between October and December 2011; and the recovery of in excess of $250,000 in stolen property, including two vehicles and a trailer with more than $7,000 in criminal damage.
- Senior Trooper Anthony B. Fox of the South Carolina Highway Patrol received, on November 23, 2011, a report of a suspected impaired driver. He observed and initiated a traffic stop on the vehicle; determined that its driver was under the influence of a controlled substance; and located in the vehicle apparent stolen property, along with jewelry and a driver’s license issued to a female. Fox pursued his findings, recovered stolen property, and found that the person to whom the driver’s license had been issued had been stabbed to death. The suspected impaired driver has been charged with first-degree murder.
- Trooper W. Sean Lashmet of the Missouri State Highway Patrol initiated, on February 21, a computer check on a license plate. The check revealed that the vehicle’s owner had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant; the owner’s photograph resembled the vehicle’s passenger. Lashmet unsuccessfully attempted to stop the vehicle, and a pursuit ensued. The vehicle was abandoned in a field. The female driver failed in her attempt to flee and subsequently was determined to be wanted for questioning in the disappearance of a male. Additional investigation and the execution of a search and seizure warrant led to the arrest of three more persons who, along with the female driver, have been charged with second-degree murder of the male victim.
Numerous serious crimes such as those highlighted by the Looking Beyond the License Plate award program are resolved daily by officers doing their utmost to safeguard those they have chosen to serve. Hopefully, the remarkable efforts described here will inspire chiefs and officers alike to avail themselves of this existing resource in their professional toolboxes to apprehend violent criminals and reduce crime.
Share with 3M and the IACP Highway Safety Committee those arrests based on license plates, and vie to become the 2013 grand prize winner honored at the 120th Annual IACP Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 19–23, 2013.
Applications for 3M’s 2013 Looking Beyond the License Plate award program for actions occurring between June 1, 2012, and May 31, 2013, can be completed online. Visit http://www.theiacp.org/About/Awards/LookingBeyondtheLicensePlateAwardProgram/tabid/343/Default.aspx. ♦
Please cite as:
Ronald K. Replogle and Richard J. Ashton, "License Plates Continue to Jail Felons," Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 79 (November 2012): 68–69.