To the Editor:
Infrared camera lenses. GPS coordinates. Sophisticated laptop systems and surreptitious nighttime surveillances. Is this a James Bond movie or a Tom Clancy novel? It’s neither. Welcome to Stamford’s dystopic, Orwellian endeavor to capture property tax scofflaws. I recently fell victim to this Quixotic quest, and people need to understand what this entails.
I have continuously lived in New Jersey for the last four years. However, on 10/24, my parents received a letter at their home in Stamford (my address five years ago) from the tax assessor. The letter contained a vague, ominous admonition advising me that my car may have been in Stamford enough to warrant taxation in 2023. Stamford – partnering with Municipal Tax Services (MTS) – advised that due to their generic suspicion, the evidentiary burden of proof had suddenly shifted to me to prove my innocence. I’m not aware of one case or statute in American jurisprudence that allows the government – either on its own or through a private conduit like MTS – to vaguely accuse me of an offense without evidence and then require me to exonerate myself. And how do I exonerate myself? Well, here is what MTS considers “acceptable” proof:
“EZ-Pass documents…Gas purchases….GPS tracking records, parking records, motor vehicle infractions…”
To put this in its proper context, almost all of the “acceptable forms of proof” would require law enforcement in a criminal investigation to obtain a subpoena or even a search warrant. In 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement installing a GPS on the defendant’s car constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment (see United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012). And why is GPS information considered so sacred? As Justice Sotomayor recognized in Carpenter v. United States 585 US (2018) when comparing cell site information from a cell phone to GPS data:
“As with GPS information, the time-stamped data provides an intimate window into a person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his ‘familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.’” Id., at 415.
In other words, information that could otherwise only be compelled by a search warrant is now expected to be handed over at the slightest hint of “suspicion” without a showing by the government of wrongdoing. This is alarming. Where I go or where I spend my money is none of MTS’s business. Given the intrusive nature of GPS tracking information, it begs some questions: how does MTS store our proof/ data? What safeguards are in place to prevent our data from being exploited by threat actors in the cyber arena? What is my recourse if MTS negligently or nefariously provides my data to third parties? These aren’t rhetorical, academic questions. According to a 2019 article from Vice Magazine, a group of hackers breached a license plate reader (LPR) technology company linked to the US government.
To be sure, there is a role for LPRs in the hands of law enforcement while conducting predicated criminal investigations. But allowing this technology to be exploited in the name of seeking scofflaws seems dangerous. It appears that MTS uses LPRs along with the above-referenced sophisticated technology in a shotgun styled, indiscriminate approach. My parents house is set back a significant distance from the street and in most cases, it is impossible to read a license plate parked in their driveway from the street. I have to wonder if MTS used binoculars to enhance their view of their property. If I told you that someone was in your neighborhood as close to your property line as possible with an infrared camera and/or binoculars taking pictures of your property at night, how would you feel?
This could happen to you if you have friends or family from out of state who sleep at your house occasionally. Will I have to demonstrate that I don’t live in or spend most of my time in Stamford every year? Like an IRS audit, I had to compile toll records, bank statements, leasing records and auto repair invoices to show that I don’t owe property taxes. You can’t put a price tag on aggravation, but apparently Stamford can put a price tag on how much it’s willing to allow its citizens (and guests) to be surveilled.
Thomas J. Cribbin, Esq.