The police force in Troy, New York, has introduced a new initiative aimed at reducing thefts from parked cars – permitting officers to enter your vehicle in the event it is unlocked, and locking the doors for you.

Via the Troy Record:

With a recent spike in thefts from parked cars, the Troy Police Department is looking to roll out some preventive measures it thinks will not only reduce the amount of thefts but also make some residents more aware of what they’re leaving in their cars.
In this effort, if a police officer does notice a valuable item laying out in plain view in a parked car, the officer will then check its plate numbers, and if the address comes back locally, the officer will go to the registered owner’s place of residence and leave a blue card in the entrance way of the building. If the car does not belong to a local address, the officer will then leave the card on its windshield.
If a car is found to be unlocked, according to Police Chief John Tedesco, the officer will lock the vehicle.
Tedesco said the plan was developed over the last several months and has been approved by Mayor Lou Rosamilia.

No word on whether the officers will fill up your gas tank if your fuel level becomes too low, reducing the number of disabled vehicles on city streets, or if they will actually drive people around town in an effort to reduce car accidents as well.

Honestly, we were disappointed that a police officer didn’t personally type up this blog post in an effort to reduce carpal tunnel.

There is a basic comparison here that should immediately identify this action as flat-wrong.  Would any police force in America ever, ever, allow their officers to enter a home if the doors were unlocked, so they could lock them in an effort to deter theft?  A vehicle is private property, and quite frankly people have a right to defend and protect it – even from the well-intentioned police force.

There are clearly defined problems with this new initiative other than common sense, however:

  1. It allows a police officer into your vehicle and creates a slippery slope on what he/she can look around for.  For that matter, what exactly can be defined as valuable?  Does every car with a GPS on the dashboard now contain a ‘valuable’ item, opening it up for police scrutiny?  A custom car stereo?
  2. It essentially puts a sign on one’s vehicle that says “Hey, there are valuable items in here.”  So if a would-be criminal wasn’t thinking about taking any action, he/she will certainly be tempted now that they know the vehicle has an iPod inside.
  3. If something has already been stolen from the vehicle by the time an officer arrives, or if it is stolen after the officer places a blue card on the windshield, you’ve just provided the criminal with reasonable doubt if he/she is charged.  At that point, you have two people who may have been in the car against the owner’s wishes – the thief, and the officer – creating a problem in investigating who may have committed the crime.  The criminal may now claim that perhaps it was the officer who stole the item, and it causes a headache for the officer who may have to prove he didn’t touch anything.
Maggie Thurber writes:
What, exactly, are they trying to accomplish?  Do they think that theives won’t just find something else to steal instead?  If cars are locked and they don’t want to risk breaking a window, will they try door knobs instead?  Won’t that be riskier for the public?  What will they do then – start a door knob checking program?

She adds, “…the ‘unintended consequences’ can be problematic.”

Normally here, we are of the belief that if you’re not doing anything illegal, then you have nothing to worry about.  But the police initiative in Troy is foolish, and quite possibly illegal itself.

In an e-mail conversation with a friend who specializes in Criminal Law, the issue of whether or not this policy is legal was addressed.  He broke it down into two parts, one explaining why looking into a vehicle in a public space is justified, and another explaining that once the door is opened the action constitutes an illegal search under the 4th Amendment.

The issue is two-fold.  Observing items within plain sight albeit within the vehicle is legitimate only if the cop has the right to be in the place from which he observes.  This is why the underlying reason for a traffic stop is so important.  In the situation you pose, the cop has the right to be in a public place – a parking lot – and observe the contents of a stationary vehicle.

Opening the door, however, changes everything.  Opening the door begins a “search” under the 4th Amendment.  The cop cannot do that.  The inside of a vehicle is personal space the same as if it were your home.  The rules are a bit different, but the bottom line is the same – with no evidence of a crime and no owner permission, a vehicle can only be searched with a Warrant.
Being the ever helpful stewards of the community, we have another idea on how to reduce thefts from unlocked vehicles in the city.  Picture this … Multiple stickers and posters placed strategically throughout the city that quite simply read – Lock Your Doors, Dumb***.

Far more effective.  Much safer.  And legal.

It’s what we’re all about here…