The City of San Fransisco is looking at implementing a bait car setup. For those of you that don’t know what a bait car is, it’s a car that is left with the keys in the ignition (sometimes running), theoretically in a part of town where car theft is a problem. Now, most anybody here if you pass a car with the keys in the ignition, your response is to maybe say “idiot” and walk on. A car thief, of course, thinks differently.

Hit Coffee has been pointedly critical of a lot of police behavior on this subject and that… and so it continues!

I mean, you look at a setup like this and say “How could it go wrong?” Nobody accidentally steals a car the same way they might accidentally speed or accidentally run a red light. It’s not something that is going to affect people who aren’t, well, criminals. On the face of it, the only real objection I might have is whether or not this is the best use of resources. But even then, the cars themselves are often donated by insurance companies. There’s still the manpower issue and all that, but this is actually one of those cases where they don’t have the financial incentives that they do with traffic tickets. I mean, these aren’t people that are just going to pay a fine and move on to get caught another day. They’re charged with felonies. They’ll cost the system far more than they will pay back.

And yet… somehow, the police department in Austin, Texas, managed to screw it up. There was a case where a couple noticed the car sitting near his house and their first response was… to call the police. It seemed odd to them that someone would leave a car there with the keys in the ignition and all. Their imaginations were running away with them, but their first instinct was one of civic duty. The officers who showed up expressed no interest and said that as long as the car was legally parked they should just ignore it. And maybe they should have, but after three days or so they became concerned and their imaginations got a bit carried away with some of the oddities of the car (broken window, rope, men’s work boots, bikini top in back. They decided to investigate. They were arrested thereafter and charged with burglary of a vehicle.

Now, the two could be lying, but their police call is a matter of record and it seems pretty clear they were investigating rather than thieving. Ledford, the man in question, has it right when he said that maybe he’s guilty of trespassing but not burglary. Even so, the evidence that they were acting on anything but good faith is pretty slight. Obviously, you don’t want people going vigilante, but when people see something curious and they’ve already tried to contact the authorities, do you want them to just ignore it for fear that they might be criminally charged for their concern?

So why did Austin charge forward with this? I can think of a couple reasons. First, perhaps they were worried that Ledford was going to muck up their investigation. But the criminal charges were completely unnecessary. Instead, I fear the reason is that once you have a setup like this going with thousands of dollars put into it, you have to get results wherever you can find them. I have similar concerns with some checkpoints run by officers in departments that I expressly don’t trust (a relatively small number of departments, in the overall, to be honest). Here they are getting grant money as well as some free equipment. It may not be enough for the system to pay for itself, but the need for results is still there if you want to keep getting the money that you can (it’s not a cop’s job to try to keep expenditures down).

San Fransisco is apparently lining up with TruTV (formerly Court TV) in order to put their findings on television. On the one hand, it leads to somewhat questionable motives. On the other hand, the SFPD would probably be embarrassed to charge Ledford if he was a TV star.

They convinced Ledford to plead guilty of something irrelevant. I can’t remember what because it post-dates the article and I don’t care to listen to the whole NPR sequence where I first heard it.

Category: Courthouse, Road

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6 Responses to Taking the Bait

  1. Kirk says:

    Leaving a car running like that is dangerous. Who is to say a child won’t hop in it? Also, at what point (if any) do salvage rights come in?

  2. Kirk says:

    Also, what if someone just borrows the car? If say, someone is just planning on taking it to the store and back, the only theft would be the gas. How could the cops say differently?

  3. Nanani says:

    Borrowing without permission is still stealing. Even for a bait car. It has to be, or else every theif could get off with “But I was jsut borrowing it!”

  4. trumwill says:

    The law actually does make a distinction between “borrowing a car” (joyriding) and outright theft. But both are illegal and both should be, in my view.

    Regarding the kid drivers, the article says that they actually arrested a 13-year old. Not sure if he was driving it or not, but it’s not far-fetched.

  5. Maria says:

    Sounds like entrapment to me.

  6. Ray says:

    There will always be those people who do things that are bad and destructive. When they implemented this program they also made it into a TV show. You actually learn a lot from the people who are involved in Bait Car the show. I work for Dish Network and I usually catch an episode or two on truTV in HD. It’s just as entertaining as Cops without all the chases.

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