Sunday, August 09, 2009

Are 'bait cars' manufacturing crime?

I realize crime is declining, but is it really so rare that police have to manufacture crimes instead of investigating those that are reported? I missed this story when it came out a couple of weeks ago, but the Austin Statesman had an interesting piece about Austin PD's "bait car" program, where the agency leaves a vehicle filled with surveillance equipment parked out in the open with the windows down and the keys in it. According to reporter Michael May ("Police bait car program lands couple who reported suspicious vehicle in court," July 26):

The undercover program produced 70 warrants or arrests in 2008 and 13 this year, according to Sgt. Oliver Tate with the Police Department's auto theft interdiction unit. In the past, Detective John Spillers has been quoted as saying the program has caught suspects as young as 13.

The police did not specify what the arrests were for, how many resulted in convictions or why the number of arrests has declined in 2009. Nor did they provide figures on how much the program costs. However, in 2007 the City Council received an $85,287 one-year grant from the state for bait car equipment.

This program seems to invite crime instead of prevent it. How many auto thefts occur when somebody leaves their keys in the car with the windows rolled down, particularly for days on end? I don't think I've seen anybody intentionally leave their keys in a parked car since the 1970s.

In fact, it's damn impressive that the car could sit with the keys in it for days without being bothered. In that environment, is the program really necessary?

An attorney for a couple accused of breaking into a bait car after calling the police about it suggested the tactic could create liability for police: "'It's a completely functional car,' he said. 'They have no idea who could get behind the wheel. This was near a high school, so it could have been a kid. Or a drunk.' (McCallum High School is in the neighborhood.)"

Said the fellow who first reported the car to police then was prosecuted for searching it: "To hell with being a concerned citizen ... You hear stories of someone getting mugged and no one gets involved. Now I see why."

What do you think? Is the program worth the effort or does it border too closely on entrapment? From the examples in this article it doesn't sound like the program is geared toward targeting hardened auto thieves.

RELATED: From the LRC Blog, "Tax-Feeders and Manufactured Crime."

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Honest officer, I've never stolen or broken into a car before.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Most thieves, of course, don't CALL the cops first.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the tactic was successful for a while, then the word got out and everyone knew what the car looked like and was going on.

Big waste of money. Cost way too much and probably only found "crimes" that would not have happened except for the set up.

Dutcher Stiles said...

Bait motorcycles were used in San Diego to help bust a cross border theft ring ("Operation Knee Drag") in 2008. They were, however, used as part of a larger strategy, and the bait was tracked to help identify the "supply chain" rather than just the thief.
It probably helps if you have a plan, or a targeting a pattern of theft, rather than just randomly leaving an unlocked car on a residential street.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's an excellent distinction, Dutcher. The majority of auto theft in Texas is joy riding, and doesn't go up the "supply chain."

If they're looking for Mr. Big, I'm fine with it. If, as in the Statesman story, they're prosecuting someone who drove it half a block then returned it where they found it, that to me makes little sense.

Anonymous said...

Grits,

They should have followed your advice and refused to speak to the Police, who were only interested in charging them with a crime, ANY crime.

Interestingly, the Austin PD crime stats show that auto theft is no problem in that neighborhood:

30 stolen vehicles in the last 18 months, with 16 Bicycle thefts. I wonder if they could develop a "bait" program for bicycles too? The 78756 Zip has averaged 23 auto thefts per year since 2003, hardly an epidemic.

It's a shame that these citizens, who called the PD first, were then charged with a crime. Is there no common sense in our criminal justice system any more? They called the Police to investigate and were to told to forget about it. I'm no criminal defense lawyer but what about intent? As you said, thieves don't normally call the cops first! I'm sure they'll eventually be free of the charges but it could happen to ANY citizen.

And to you LEOs: That's why many of us are short, sweet, and unhelpful to you. Trust is a two way street, and if you are always thinking about what you can do to arrest me, It's of no benefit for me to talk. SHAME on that ADA for accepting charges.

---JB

Soronel Haetir said...

Grits,

I saw this story elsewhere, I was fine with the couple's actions until they tried breaking into the trunk. Looking through the passenger compartment for registration papers is one thing, trying to open the trunk without keys something else entirely.

Boyness said...

I'm OK with bait cars they way they have been used in Houston which has been in areas with higher incidents of auto theft.

Skeptical AKA JB said...

Soronel,
Easy to second guess them at this point. I would not have likely tried to open the trunk either, but I don't know. PD said it was legally parked, not their problem. Of course we now know that they knew it was a bait car. Why not just say, "hey, we'll keep on eye on it, thanks for the tip, wink". The Perps (oops I mean residents AKA Good Samaritans) might have understood that it was already being watched.

I'll side with Grit's premise; they're likely manufacturing crime not reducing it. I'll bet this program, while flashy, has had limited if any results. 212 arrests over twelve years. That's less than 18 per year with an average of about 2800 stolen cars every year. Convictions? Charges Dropped? Deferred Adjudication? Guess we don't know.

ENTRAPMENT: the act of a law enforcement agent inducing a person to commit an offense which would be illegal and the person would otherwise have been unlikely to commit.

Sounds like it to me. Need good counsel on this one.

--JB

Anonymous said...

I don't think I've seen anybody intentionally leave their keys in a parked car since the 1970s.

You must not have any friends that are ADHD

Anonymous said...

Look, this was an incompetent sting by the police. They should have had a plan to deal with this kind of possibility.

But it hardly means that crimes are being manufactured. Stings are a valuable and proactive tool of law enforcement to catch criminals before they actually harm someone.

doran said...

Anon 2:06

Have you any bright ideas on how to identify and "catch" crooked, or incompetent, or poorly trained and motivated cops before THEY hurt someone?

Anonymous said...

Looks to me like if there isn't a real problem or it doesn't address a real problem its making work. Sounds to me like having the people accused of breaking and entering, pay to repair the vehicle and join a community policing initiative would be the solution. Spending all that money on courts, lawyers, and probation or incarceration is absurd.

Mike Howard said...

Bait car programs, IMO, are a huge waste of time. Unfortunately they're probably not entrapment in the legal sense b/c it's almost impossible to convince a court the person wouldn't have otherwise committed the crime but for the police inducing them. It's a nearly impossible standard to reach. IMO it's designed that way. I hear defendants claim entrapment all the time; it's always hard to explain that it's a pretty empty legal argument...

Independent Accountant said...

Grits:
A number of years ago, New York City had a program called "Lucky Bag". The police left purses in various stores, then arrested people for picking them up. I'll see if I can find the citation for you. The Manhattan DA declined to prosecute the cases.

Independent Accountant said...

Grits:
Put "Operation Lucky Bag" into Google. Over 300 people were arrested in NYC over this.

Boyness said...

After reading the HPD crime lab report again, I have changed my mind. Allowing ANY discretion with any law enforcement agency in Texas is a mistake.

Hey cops, you reap what you sew so live with you. You idiots are losing me!

Charles said...

People leave their keys in the car with the motor running all the time in Tulia. And most of them don't have ADHD.

Anonymous said...

A liberal is a criminal's best friend.

Why don't we go after 'To Catch A Predator'. How dare we entice this men into a situation that on their own, they would take no part in. Police, Probation, and Parole are the problem, right?

I am not concerned about bait cars; however, if I was a car thief, it would be on my mind!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, 9:49, Texas prosecutors aren't too thrilled with the Catch a Predator program. And most of those guys aren't "liberals."

RAS said...

Why would an honest man be searching a car just because he can and the police didn't come running about a car involved in NO violations? Easily stolen goods don't tempt the honest, but burning the hands of those that can't resist temptation does reduce theft. If you can't give someone respect for others property then you can only give them fear of the consequences of not having that respect.

Anonymous said...

In a big city, if you find something you are first likely to think it is abandoned.

In a small town, if you find something you are first likely to think someone lost it and will want it back.

It is all about culture! So, was the bait car abandoned?

doran said...

The bait car sting is a lot like the "stolen stuff" sting. There is even a special provision in the Texas Penal Code to make the "stolen stuff" sting legal enough to pass Constitutional challenge.

Typically, cops or their surrogates will set up somewhere under the guise of being low-life thieves with stolen stuff to sell real cheap. [I think the nomenclature for such people is "fences."] Things like window air conditioners, gasoline powered electrical generators, pumps, construction tools, etc. If you fall for this and actually attend one of these sales, the cops or their surrogates will represent to you that the goods are in fact stolen, even though they are not. Sometimes, the goods are donated to the cause by local business people supporting their local police.

If you buy some of this stuff, it having been represented to you as stolen, you get busted for receiving stolen goods, which is a form of theft.

Before the Texas Lege legitimized this peculiar use of police resources, the gambit was held to be unconstitutional, on the ground that you cannot be charged with knowingly receiving stolen goods if in fact the goods are not stolen. Seems to me to be a very fair decision.

So, before the Lege legitimized the use of non-stolen stuff, cops would use items which they had recovered in other cases, items which were in fact stolen, were never claimed by an owner, and were rusting away in a police property room. I'm not sure why this wasn't good enough, but apparently it was not.

Disclaimer: It has been a while since I practiced criminal law that involved this issue, and it is possible that there have been changes to the statute or a court decision which has affected this practice.

I would like to know if this police practice has really cut-in to the business of fencing stolen consumer goods. I doubt it, because Fences can just sub-out the work to a large number of people who will sell smaller amounts of the goods to their friends, rather than trying to move everything at some "stolen stuff" bazaar.

I've also wondered what the legal implications are if some civilians set up a faux "stolen stuff" bazaar, represented the goods being sold to have been stolen, and get busted by police for possessing/transferring stolen goods?

Or even better, not get busted by cops (off duty cops) who drop by looking for bargains.

Travis said...

I don't guess it means much since the police often break the laws the rest of us "civilians" must live by, but according to the Austin PD "Leaving your key in an unattended motor vehicle is a crime in Texas."

Joel Reed said...

Um, Grits? They were only arrested after they tried to pry the trunk open. Good citizens? Really? I mean, I can't tell you how many times I have PRIED OPEN SOME STRANGER'S LOCKED PROPERTY in an effort to be a good neighbor.

This story is all about the spin -- the paper's primarily quoting their attorney.

Jhon smith said...

Bait motorcycles were used in San Diego to help bust a cross border theft ring ("Operation Knee Drag") in 2008. They were, however, used as part of a larger strategy, and the bait was tracked to help identify the "supply chain" rather than just the thief.
It probably helps if you have a plan, or a targeting a pattern of theft, rather than just randomly leaving an unlocked car on a residential street.

Bhimashankar said...

Look, this was an incompetent sting by the police. They should have had a plan to deal with this kind of possibility.

But it hardly means that crimes are being manufactured. Stings are a valuable and proactive tool of law enforcement to catch criminals before they actually harm someone.

8/09/2009 02:06:00 PM