Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Did Austin police commit crime in 'bait car' episode?

I wrote the other day about the Austin PD's "bait car" program in which they left a vehicle with the windows down and the keys in the ignition for several days in a residential neighborhood to entice thieves. In the comments to that post, an alert reader pointed to this page on the Austin Police Department website that claims, "Leaving your key in an unattended motor vehicle is a crime in Texas" (#7). I find that statement especially fascinating considering Austin PD's official reasons for leaving the keys in the ignition of their "bait car," according to the Austin Statesman:
[Sgt. Oliver] Tate said there's good reason to sometimes leave the keys in the ignition and the windows rolled down, even if it raises suspicions. "It's about factors that we are seeing in that area," Tate said. "If cars are being stolen with the keys left in the car, left running, what have you, then we try to stay as close to those factors as possible."
That's a weird twist on the issue, isn't it? I'd never heard before that there's a state law against leaving the keys in the ignition of an unattended vehicle, and in fact somehow I doubt it, though I don't know why they'd make it up. But even if it's false, that doesn't mitigate the irony of police telling the public something is illegal then going out and doing it themselves.

UPDATE - It's definitely illegal to leave the key in the ignition of an unattended car - see the comments for details.


Skeptical Jim said...

The TX DOT website also says that it's illegal to leave keys in an unattended car:


So the APD commits a crime in order to lure someone into committing a crime? The charges should be dropped against that couple. ASAP

Charlie O said...

Just goes to show you what I said in a post to another story. COPS DON'T KNOW THE LAWS!!!! How can the rest of us be expected to know them?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hmmmm ... the TXDOT page give us a likely reason for this weird criminal law: "if your vehicle is stolen with the keys in it, your insurance company may not cover your loss." I'll bet that was the motive for originally passing it.

Anonymous said...

From http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us (search "Transportation Code" for "key"):

Sec. 545.404. UNATTENDED MOTOR VEHICLE. An operator may not leave the vehicle unattended without:
(1) stopping the engine;
(2) locking the ignition;
(3) removing the key from the ignition;
(4) setting the parking brake effectively; and
(5) if standing on a grade, turning the front wheels to the curb or side of the highway.

Acts 1995, 74th Leg., ch. 165, Sec. 1, eff. Sept. 1, 1995.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks 12:41 -

Looking at that section of the law, here's another "crime" I didn't know about:

"Sec. 545.406. COASTING. (a) An operator moving on a downgrade may not coast with the gears or transmission of the vehicle in neutral."

Who'da thunk? I wonder what that's about?

Anonymous said...

So that means the couple that got arrested can say they were legally investigating a crime that the police refused to help with. Good samaritans busted by the APD.

Brody said...


The rationale behind the "coasting on a downgrade" is one of vehicle control. If you're coasting in neutral on a downgrade the only method you have of slowing the vehicle is your brakes, which will eventually overheat, glaze, and stop functioning. It's not as big an issue now as it was prior to the widespread use of disc brakes. Drums were notorious about being ineffective once they got too hot and glazed.

If you've got the vehicle in gear, then the transmission and engine are providing some resistance to acceleration, and taking the load off the brakes.

Roy said...

So I violate the law every time I leave my parked car without setting the parking brake?

Anonymous said...

Brody hit the nail right on the head. It's especially important for anyone with a load or for big trucks. Bad juju coasting 40 tons down a hill.

Brody said...


And if you don't turn your wheels curbside. I've never known anyone in Texas to have a problem with this aspect of the code, but the parking enforcement in Washington DC will indeed write you a ticket if your wheels are pointed the wrong way.

DC also has a similar law on not leaving your keys in the car. However, they go one step further and extend civil liability to the owner of the car if it is subsequently stolen. So if you leave your keys in it, it's stolen, the bad guy takes it on a high speed chase and kills a family of four- guess who's going to be jointly responsible for the wrongful death suits?

Skeptical Jim said...

From the Austin American Statesman;

"Tuesday, June 27, 2006, 10:39 AM

The Austin Police Department has issued this news release:

The Austin Police Department Auto Theft Interdiction Unit has announced a citywide initiative aimed at motorists who leave keys and children in unattended vehicles.

Operation H.E.A.T. (Help End Auto Theft) will address violations that include unattended vehicles with keys left in the ignition and children younger than seven (not attended by a 14 year old or older) for longer than five minutes. With assistance from area command District Representative and Street Response Units, officers will patrol high traffic areas that includes motels/hotels and convenience stores along major roadways in Austin. Vehicles left unattended with the keys in the ignition are more likely to be stolen and drivers are more likely to leave their vehicles running in order to keep the vehicle's air conditioning operating during the summer.

Emphasis Added:

Citations will be issued for the following violations:

Unattended Motor Vehicle (Transportation Code 545.404): Unattended vehicle with keys in ignition. This offense has a fine of up to $200.

...This proactive initiative is designed to reduce auto thefts as well as burglary of vehicles, robberies and theft. In 2005 there were 2,548 vehicles reported stolen in Austin."

So the APD Officer who left the bait car unattended violated the Statute and will receive a citation? I'll hold my breath.


Quinn said...

Why exactly is anyone upset about this?

Roy said...

qwints: We are upset because of this police entrapment story.

Skeptical Jim said...

Respectfully, did you read the original piece about the couple who were arrested two weeks AFTER calling the APD about the suspect vehicle? Why is it OK for the PD to commit a violation of the law in order to lure someone into breaking the law?

Can a LEO smoke crack on a street corner in order to "try to stay as close to those factors as possible." as Sgt. Tate so describes their rationale?

Why exactly would anyone NOT be upset about this?

Anonymous said...

It's not entrapment for heaven's sake. You might not like it, but it doesn't even come close to entrampment.

Anonymous said...

anon 3:05 it isn't the fact that we don't "like" it.. it is the FACT the Austin Police Department committed a CRIME by leaving the windows down, doors unlocked, and the keys in the ignition. Just another posted indicated it is just as unlawful for them to do this as it would be for one of them to purchase, light up and smoke Crack to get someone arrested. It is entrapment 100%. Personally, If I ever see a vehicle sitting in such a state, I will call the tow company and report it as abandoned ...

Anonymous said...

"Who'da thunk? I wonder what that's about?"

It's about cars behiveyscrnd you not knowing that you're not in gear, and may be slowing down, and therefore not having warning that they may run into the back of you. You're not supposed to coast anywhere.

Suck it, hypermilers.

Anonymous said...

It is also illegal to pick up prostitutes or buy crack cocaine. But, here's another fun fact you might not be up to speed on: Under cover cops buy dope and solicit prostitutes all the time. It's called good police work and it's how they keep drug dealers and hookers out of your neighborhood. The cops aren't breaking the law when they do it for that purpose and they aren't breaking the law when they set up a bait car.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, 5:02, this is real "good police work." We all feel safer now. :-/

Skeptical Jim said...

Hey 5:02,

Why charge that couple with (attempted) Auto Burglary? Do you LEOs have no common sense when it comes to Justice, or do you just charge anybody you can with anything you can? I'm not letting the ADA off the hook, she should have never accepted those charges. It's this kind of Mickey Mouse crap that destroys the public trust you work so hard to build. Don't make excuses for it for crying out loud. You (we) can do better!

Travis said...

The way I happen to know about the "keys in ignition law" is from a friend. He had a diesel pick-up truck that was sometimes hard to start, so he left the truck running while he ran into the convince store to pick up some a soda. Some guy jumps into the truck and takes off. My friend called the police to report the theft. Cops came out and took a report and then wrote him a ticket for leaving the keys in the truck. Talk about a slap in the face. A normal person would most likely think he learned his lesson by having his truck stolen. This abnormal cop decided to add insult to injury.

Anonymous said...

Well Bwess Grits' widdle heart. First it's sympathy for the capital murderer, who doesn't deserve a more humane fate than his victim.

Then, it's cry me a river over the poor overburdened and oversupervised sex offenders, who do horrible things to children and ruin many lives.

Now it's the car theif, one of the bottom feeders of theifdom.

I hope all of the above, and lots of them, live around you as your neighbors the rest of your life.

Could you pass the tissues? I'm all weepy over this horrible violation of the supposed rights of the criminals.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:26, you confuse me for someone who cares about your good opinion. If you don't like what you read here, leave and don't come back. But stop the whining, you sound like a punk and a coward.

Anonymous said...

This is an example of a law we shouldn't have.

Anonymous said...

Well I'll be damned if I'll sit by and watch my insurance premiums go through the roof simply because some lazy over-inflated ego wants to leave their Beamer running in front of starbucks or whatever strip club they're at because they are too lazy and self absorbed to protect their own property from theft. Do that, lose your car and suck it up because your are a freaking DUMB ASS! So wear that badge of honor proudly. No excuses!

Todd said...

Big deal with this story. Cops can go above the speed limit to catch speeders. *gasp*

They can also park in the middle of the street if they can't find a parking spot and have an emergency call nearby. *oh my!*

Oh and don't forget they can run red lights when their lights and sirens are on. *stop the presses!*

The majority of people caught under this program have long criminal histories. With the exception of the Hardy boys your story is about, most normal people don't go around driving off in other people's cars.

As far as the safety aspect, the bait cars have kill switches that allow them to be turned off remotely so there will be no high speed pursuit or little kiddies driving off a bridge.

Anonymous said...

Grits you are right that generally this would be illegal. However the Texas Transportation Code States the follow:

Sec. 545.404. UNATTENDED MOTOR VEHICLE. An operator may not leave the vehicle unattended without:

(1) stopping the engine;

(2) locking the ignition;

(3) removing the key from the ignition;

(4) setting the parking brake effectively; and

(5) if standing on a grade, turning the front wheels to the curb or side of the highway.

That is the law that you are citing-

Acts 1995, 74th Leg., ch. 165, Sec. 1, eff. Sept. 1, 1995.

Sec. 541.201. VEHICLES. In this subtitle:

(1) "Authorized emergency vehicle" means:

(A) a fire department or police vehicle;

That defines what an emergency vehicle is which a "bait car" would fit that description because it is normally operated by a police officer for a law enforcement purpose.

Okay here is the kicker.... Are you ready? BAM! Here it is....

Sec. 546.001. PERMISSIBLE CONDUCT. In operating an authorized emergency vehicle the operator may:

(1) park or stand, irrespective of another provision of this subtitle;

(2) proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, after slowing as necessary for safe operation;

(3) exceed a maximum speed limit, except as provided by an ordinance adopted under Section 545.365, as long as the operator does not endanger life or property; and

(4) disregard a regulation governing the direction of movement or turning in specified directions.

Acts 1995, 74th Leg., ch. 165, Sec. 1, eff. Sept. 1, 1995.

Police Officers are authorized to park, stand and disregard traffic laws as long as they use "due care."

Grits this means that a police officer has the right to leave a vehicle unlocked with the keys in it due to the fact that is a parking violation. Police are authorized to operate their vehicles in order to achieve a law enforcement purpose.

The same concept is there when a Police Officer wears a handgun on their hip in public. This is illegal for most citizens in most situations in a public place.

They can also speed to emergency calls. I am surprised no one understands this.

Why would anyone even care about a parking violation when it comes to catching a car thief?

I like my car and don't want it stolen.

Common Sense Cop

Anonymous said...

Oh and just in case anyone is confused...

When a cop operates a government vehicle it is an emergency vehicle. It is always an emergency vehicle as long as the police officer operates it. Which means that there does not have to be an "emergency."

Just thought I would clear that up. I think that the law is pretty clear on these issues.

Common Sense Cop

Anonymous said...

Question presented by Grits: Did Austin police commit crime in 'bait car' episode?

Answer: No.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

CSC writes "Why would anyone even care about a parking violation when it comes to catching a car thief?"

As if that's the only issue ... the bigger concern expressed was that the program ISN'T CATCHING THIEVES. This is a pointless program and a waste of police time and effort.

The folks they're catching - like the couple in this story, a 13-year-old, a guy who (after it sat in his neighborhood for days) drove it on a half-block joy ride then brought it back - these are not thieves, they're not fencing the car, they're people who reacted to an odd and bizarre circumstance (including police misleading them, in this couple's case) who likely would have engaged in no "crime" without inducement by police.

Why be concerned about the key in the ignition? B/c it's stupid and makes no sense. Cops say they did it to replicate conditions from other thefts, but if it's illegal what's the point? This sting did not replicate conditions typical of other thefts, and thus does not prevent theft - it's a big fat waste of time and tax dollars, IMO.

To me, parking illegally in a way likely to manufacture crime is hardly using "due care."

Anonymous said...

I say F' them. if you or someone that you love steals a bait car, ram in to the first business or school bus that you see. It will definitely STOP the stupidity of the police forces using them... Or better,. drive it into a creek then sue the crap out of the local LEO's for having a vehicle that someone cannot escape from in case of accident.

And since we are on the subject of bait cars, to the person who stated that any vehicle is considered an emergency vehicle if a cop is inside it.. bait cars have an abandoned look to them and there is no LE inside.. therefore these are NOT emergency vehicles, even though police want them to be to avoid the embarrassment of breaking state law.

Anonymous said...

@Gritsforbreakfast: "the bigger concern expressed was that the program ISN'T CATCHING THIEVES."

Isn't catching thieves? Where did you get that information? The Austin Police Department has never caught a thief with the bait car program? The only people to ever be caught with this program are a 13 year old, a joy rider, and the couple in this story?

The fact is police catch thieves all the time with this program. Police use this program to catch career criminals who make a living by stealing from other people. Criminals who don't just break into one car in their lifetime and then retire from the car burglary business.

It makes sense that this program allows police to solve crimes that otherwise would have gone unsolved by arresting a thief in a bait car and then tying him to other burglaries in the area through fingerprint evidence or interviews and interrogations. Or, if it is his first car burglary, it prevents him from committing more while he's in jail, it begins the documentation to show his history when he gets caught doing it again, and it causes him to think about the bait car program the next time he gets the idea to take something that doesn't belong to him.

You say, "This sting did not replicate conditions typical of other thefts..." How do you know that? Read up on Austin PD auto theft and auto burglary reports not involving bait cars. I would venture to say that an overwhelming number of them involve a vehicle in which the key was in the ignition, the doors were unlocked, and/or the windows were rolled down. You have anecdotal evidence from Travis whose friend left his truck running while he went into a convenience store. It is actually a pretty common occurrence, not an "odd and bizarre circumstance."

As to the police "misleading" this couple, wouldn't it defeat the purpose of the bait car program if the police told people which one was the bait car?

You say that this is a "pointless program and a waste of police time and effort." You also say that it is a "big fat waste of tax dollars." To me it seems like a pretty worthy program. I can't think of a better way for police to catch thieves red handed and garner good convictions. Can you? What program would you implement to wisely use police resources and tax dollars to catch thieves if you were in charge?

Suds said...

Wow. Cops are stupid.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Where did you get that information?"

From the article's examples of the types of cases being made with the bait car.

The majority of car thefts are joy riding incidents where the cars are recovered, not "professional" thieves who fence vehicles through organized crime rings. If the bait car were going after the latter - looking for fences and Mr. Big - I'd be more likely to support it, but that's not what they're doing.

", wouldn't it defeat the purpose of the bait car program if the police told people which one was the bait car?"

Not at all, rather it would have prevented an embarrassing situation for the police.

"I can't think of a better way for police to catch thieves red handed and garner good convictions. Can you? "

See the comment above about going after fences and those upstream in car theft rings. That would achieve a lot more bang for the buck than this foolishness.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who would drive off in a car that doesn't belong to them is a criminal. I should have the right to stop my car and leave it all day with the keys inside and the doors unlocked, and not have anyone steal it from me. When did we as a society come to accept the idea that it is OK to steal as long as the victim doesn't stop you from stealing? Clearly the insurance lobby must have been behind the law prohibiting leaving the keys in the car, since that saves them money. But the idea that it is entrapment to leave an easily stolen car parked at the curb is utterly ridiculous. Law-abiding citizens will not feel compelled to steal cars just because the keys are in them! All of you that seem to think that the victim is at fault when someone steals from him appall me. While it may be foolish to be so trusting, it's doesn't make you a criminal to be victimized! You would all be shocked if I were to suggest that a rapist should be released because his victim wore a skimpy outfit and walked down a dark alley at night. The only difference is the degree of the crime and the harm done. The moral justification for condemning the victim is just as flawed in the car theft case as it is in the rape case.

When did we sudddenly decide that dishonesty was the norm and the criminals are the honest people who fail to protect themselves? Talk about a backwards viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

Due care means not dangerously.

Who manufactures the crime? I don't just take people's cars because they are unlocked.

All crimes are "manufactured" by people. Usually by the criminal.

I have a feeling Grits that you are lucky enough to never have your car stolen.

Unfortunately for us folks that grew up in poor neighborhoods had to put up with car thieves.

Does it matter who's car they steal. Does it matter that it belongs to the police? No, it is STILL NOT THEIR PROPERTY and the police have the moral, legal, and ethical obligation, privilege, and right to apprehend these criminals!

Sorry Scott, as I explained to you through reason and the law earlier, the Austin Police are not breaking any law in what they are doing, and I really wish you would say so on your blog.

Yes they are using due care because they parking violation is a nuisance offense and not a dangerous violation. That would define "due care."

Scott, come on... Give me this one. The law is pretty clear on this one.

If you disagree with the law that is fine, but at this point in time, in this state, the Austin Police are well within the law.

Common Sense Cop

Anonymous said...

I think this is a bad program. No one is monitoring this car. They didn't kill the switch when the guy took it around the block? Near a high school? please.

Anonymous said...

Trying to explain the state penal code, transportation code and the code of criminal procedure to these people, whom clearly have an issue with LEO's, isn't going to go far. They are closed minded individuals that "think" they know the "law".

This is in no way a bash post on those individuals rather it is keeping everything to the point. You individuals who are clearly searching for a reason to find fault in APD's crime prevention technique are the same ones who would demand that a criminal be put away for a life term for taking your car!

The transportation code was copied/pasted in the post above which is state law....fact! Your quoting articles with someone elses opinion as if it stands any ground for state,federal or case law. In the end what really matters is that the LEO's are taking felons into custody for Unauthorized Use of Motor Vehicle. When these felons are "joy riding" in you car they commit other crimes, usually violent and costly ones at that.

You would be upset if the LEO's did nothing and now that they ARE doing something to catch these felons, you've managed to search for something else to bitch about. Instead of crying foul and coming at the LEO's with such a negative attitude, try being part of the solution and bring some creative ideas to the table. In the end I bet you'll jump on board with the bait car program as the conviction rate is solid. I won't get into the insurance and monetary portion of this topic...just another ball game of red tape.

Anonymous said...

I just listened to this story on NPR (This American Life) and there is more to the story than I've read in the local Austin stories.

First off, I don't think it is entrapment to run a program like this. It's a cat and mouse game that sometimes works. In this case it didn't.

It was clear to me that this charges should never have been brought against these two. They alerted the police to suspicious activity and the police (wrongly IMO) kept them in the dark about the nature of the car that was parked outside their home. They SHOULD have told the couple what was going on and asked them to be quiet about it. (Most law abiding citizens want to help the police.) That was the first stupid mistake by Austin law enforcement.

Stupid mistake number two was in bringing charges against the couple. In a previous post someone suggested the Austin Dist Atty was unwise for pursuing this case. The ADA should have been wise enough to see the potential damage this story would do the the local law enforcement effort.

There is a thing known as discretion... the Police and Prosecutor didn't use it when they should have. The fact that the Austin Law enforcement came off looking like fools on a nationwide radio program this afternoon is proof that they lacked the wisdom to spot a "bad case."

[just an aside, the arguments about the "bait car" being considered an emergency vehicle sound kind of iffy after the police have abandoned an operational vehicle with the keys in it for a number of days. After a certain time the car becomes a danger to the public and the "due care" issue becomes more relavent in my opinion]

roaster said...

The stupid mistake was the couple gaining access to a vehicle and attempting to gain access to its trunk without the owners permission. Just because they felt that the vehicle may have been involved in a crime does not allow them to commit a crime themselves.

In any situation, if the police do not give you an acceptable answer when you call them out the first time, then call back and request that a sergeant or lieutenant come see you about your complaint and work with them to resolve your issue legally. You know, unless you want to be arrested and charged with the crime you just committed.

Anonymous said...


They already called 911 and spoke to a police officer that basically told them it was no big deal. After that, would ANYONE call again and ask to speak to a superior? No, it wouldn't make sense to. But when you have a suspicious car sitting right outside your bedroom window for days, do you just ignore it? This was purely the police department's mistake, mainly by keeping the bait car in front of this home after the person called about it - even if the cop didn't want to tell them it was a bait car, they should've removed it immediately. And they certainly shouldn't have arrested them. It's a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand it doing and then trying to cover up for that incompetence after the face.

It's just a gross misuse of power by the police department trying to save face and making it worse - this story getting out on NPR is now going to make matters worse for Austin PD and the DA, and hopefully some heads will roll - this is something that happens in an oppressive police-state, not something that should be happening to law-abiding tax payers in America.

roaster said...

Why wouldn't somebody call back and speak with someone in charge if they are not given an acceptable explanation? If the car isn't moved and the police tell you not to worry about it and then leave, call back and ask them why you shouldn't worry about it and why it isn't being moved. What do you think all of the corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, and the Office of the Police Monitor are there for? Show? If you are a citizen then they are working for you. You have the right to ask as many questions as you like.

Even though the police could have handled the situation differently that still doesn't give anybody the right to break the law. That is all there is to it. If you haven't seen your neighbor in weeks, you don't kick in their door. You call the police, and if they feel it is necessary to kick in their door, then you let them do it. Take the law into your own hands, get in trouble.

Anonymous said...

I would like to say that I am probably the first person in the world to actually recieve a ticket for leaving my car running. I left it on for my dog when I ran inside to pick up a to-go order and got ticketing-- despite the fact that I would have got arrested had I turned the car off and left my dog in the 100 degree heat. This law is stupid. It punishes me for a crime the police think someone else might commit.

Anonymous said...

I am laughing so hard at 3:07... Leave the dog at home, idiot!

People so often create a set of circumstances that provide an environment for making mistakes. And when the mistake happens or an incident occurs, they blame the law.. or the police... or someone else... for something that they could have prevented by not being a complete moron. Stop trying to mold the people and beliefs of this world around YOU, grow up and accept some accountability.

Anonymous said...

Hence the reason for the law, genius

Anonymous said...

So you were lucky then, eh? Now how would you feel if some thief stole your car with little fluffy in it and you never saw fluffy again? I bet you'd be crying your little eyes out. Just because you've been lucky doesn't make it a stupid law. If you have any decency and you've had your shit stolen or even the thought of someone taking someone else's hard earned property, you'd probably get it.

robert said...

I have had things stolen, and I think it's a ridiculous idea. And the fact that it's on television, instead of expending that money and energy on stopping crime where it starts, lack of education, boggles my fucking mind. But one can't expect much from law enforcement officers, they're "just doing their job."