A false reading by a license-plate scanner mounted on a Prairie Village police car led officers to stop an innocent motorist on 75th Street Monday — an incident that has the PV-based attorney questioning the department’s protocol for officers unholstering their weapons.
Mark Molner, whose law office is just north of the intersection of 75th Street and State Line Road, was driving back from a sonographer’s appointment with his wife around 5:15 p.m. Monday when a Prairie Village police car pulled up behind him.
“As there were tons of cars around me, I was not certain who they were pulling over, but as I had been at the light some time, I did not think that I had had the opportunity to do anything to interest the officers, so when traffic permitted, I pulled forward with it, slowly,” Molner said. “At that time, the cruiser darted in front of me and attempted to pin me by parking diagonally across both lanes of traffic, and the motorcycle took up a place directly behind me.”
As one of the officers approached Molner’s car, Molner noticed that he had his gun out.
“He did not point it at me, but it was definitely out of the holster,” he said. “I am guessing that he saw the shock and horror on my face, and realized that I was unlikely to make (more of) a scene.”
After a few moments of conferring with the other officer on the scene, the policeman returned to Molner’s window and told him that a license plate scanner mounted on his police unit had thrown off an alert that Molner was in a stolen vehicle. As it turned out, though, the license scanner mounted on the car had misread a “7″ on Molner’s license plate as a “2.” The alert the officer received was related to a stolen Oldsmobile. Molner was driving a black BMW. Molner’s wife, who is four months pregnant, watched the incident unfolding from her car in the parking lot of Molner’s office.
Police department spokesman Capt. Wes Lovett said the scanner gave the officer the alert as he was traveling westbound at Roe Avenue on 75th Street and Molner was traveling eastbound. The officer had to turn around to catch up to Molner’s car, and it took him until Belinder Avenue to do so.
“Due to rush hour traffic, he was unable to compare the two tags prior to activating a traffic stop,” Lovett said. “What he did know is that the tag from the [license plate reader] came back to an Oldsmobile, however, that doesn’t mean the tag isn’t stolen. The BMW could be stolen or it could have simply been a switched tag.”
Molner stresses that he isn’t interested in taking any action against the department, but he questions whether it should be acceptable protocol for an officer to unholster a weapon in such a situation.
“I’m armchair quarterbacking the police, which is not a good position to be in,” he said. “But before you unholster your gun, you might want to confirm that you’ve got the people you’re looking for.”
Molner said he thinks the officer should have double checked his license plate number against the one the license plate reader was throwing off the alert for before taking out his weapon.
“It was rush hour, and there were a lot of people around,” he said. “That doesn’t seem like the situation where you’d err on the side of taking the gun out. It if had gone off, or he’d dropped it, it could have hit any number of people.”
The Prairie Village Police department added the “Directed Patrol Unit” that threw off the alert on Molner’s car to its fleet last April. The vehicle has several cameras mounted on it that scan the license plates of passing vehicles, comparing those plate numbers to a database of cars know to be associated with a crime. The department has credited the unit with the apprehension of a number of criminals.
Lovett said the license plate reader on the unit has “been in service now for over a year and during this time no one has ever been falsely arrested or has it ever provided a false reading on a stolen auto.” He said that such scanning errors likely occur from time to time, but they are very infrequent.
As for the department’s policy around unholstering weapons, Lovett said the officer was within the guidelines.
“The officer has discretion on whether or not to unholster his weapon depending on the severity of the crime,” Lovett said. “In this case he did not point it at the driver, rather kept it down to his side because he thought the vehicle could possibly be stolen. If he was 100 percent sure it was stolen then he would have conducted a felony car stop which means both officers would have been pointing guns at him while they gave him commands to exit the vehicle.”