Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Un-Lucky Bag Operation

About 2 years ago I watched a weekly episodic television series called "Bait Car". The shows premise was to arrest people who were thieves believing the fact that they were greedy enough to steal a car is a clear sign that they are criminals. The officers would leave a "nice" car parked in an urban area with the keys in the ignition, and the engine running. The officers would then wait for someone to come along and steal the car. Once the unsuspecting individual began to drive off in the vehicle, the officers on location would activate a remote "kill switch" shutting off the engine. At which time a number of officers from the auto-theft unit would burst out of the shadows and place the driver under arrest.

I realize that the general consensus is that they should not have tried to drive off in a car that did not belong to them, and I get that, because I had the same thought. But the whole thing just seemed wrong. It's kind of like dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit and expecting it not to take a nibble. The Police Officers seemed to revel in their triumph, and celebrate each arrest as if it they were career making moments, often administering stern lectures to handcuffed suspects once in custody. After watching the show for a few weeks I actually started rooting for the car thieves. I know it was wrong, and I did feel a little guilty for hoping that they got away but, It wasn't like their crime was one of premeditation. More like crimes of opportunity. Ok, I know that it doesn't make it right, and all of my Christian brother's, and sister's will probably chastise me, but I'm just being honest. My question is. Why not move the operation to the suburbs? I'm sure that there is no shortage of greedy popportunist's who live on those tree-lined streets. I thought that this was the most blatant form of entrapment until I heard this story.

It's a tactic the New York Police Department has used for years. They leave cars and bags loaded with valuables in plain sight to see if anyone takes the bait. Sometimes the bait is a small amount of cash in a stray wallet. Or a credit card. Even a pack of cigarettes can do the trick. Those who leave without trying to turn in the valuables are arrested.

Police in New York City leave the items unattended on subway platforms, on park benches, in cars, and wait to see if someone grabs them.

The New York Police Department says the practice has been a valuable tool for catching career criminals and deterring thefts in public places. As usual, innocent people end up becoming innocent victims. A recent court ruling throwing out a larceny case against a Bronx woman cast a harsh light on this dubious tactic.

Judge Linda Poust Lopez found that there was no proof Deirdre Myers tried to steal anything, and that she was framed by a sting that took the tactic way too far. Upholding the charges "would greatly damage the confidence and trust of the public in the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system, and rightly so," the judge wrote.

Myers, a 40 year-old single mother with no criminal record, has since sued the city, claiming she and her daughter were traumatized by a wrongful arrest in 2010.

"You know how embarrassing and humiliating this was?" Myers said.
"I'd never been stopped by the police for anything in my life."

The city Law Department is still reviewing Myers' lawsuit, city attorney Raju Sundaran said in a statement. But, he added, "undercover sting operations are lawful and help reduce crime."
In addition to terrorizing the poor in a still recovering economy, and turning law abiding citizens into collateral damage.

The judge suggested that Myers' brush with the law had its roots in the so called lucky bag operation that the NYPD began in 2006 to deter thefts of wallets, shopping bags, smartphones and other valuables in the subways.

A typical scenario was for a plainclothes officer to place a handbag with cash on a train platform and briefly look or step away. Anyone who took the bag, then passed up chances to return it to the undercover cop or to report it to a uniformed officer posted nearby could be locked up.

At the time, police credited the subway operation with driving down crime there. They say they still use the tactic when they see a spike in thefts of personal property in public places such as Grand Central Terminal or Central Park. But they now require more evidence of intent a suspect trying to hide a wallet or taking cash out of it and throwing it away before making an arrest.

Last year, police arrested a tourist from Atlanta in Central Park after he picked up a purse and took out $27 stashed inside, according to court papers in another pending civil case. He ended up paying a $120 fine as part of a plea bargain. Something tells me that this was probably his first and last time seeing the Statue of Liberty. His vacation tale of finding $27 in what is perhaps the most famous park in the world, was turned into a nightmarish encounter with the N.Y.P.D.


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