Sticker on a Victoria, B.C. bait car. Picture taken by the Victoria Police Department.
The above picture accompanied this recent news story
from Victoria, B.C., about three arrests made over the last month by the Victoria Police Department by the use of bait cars
In fact, it isn’t just cars; as this story notes, police in some jurisdictions will also place things like wallets, purses, and the like on park benches, wait to see if someone takes the bait, then nab them.
That story shows what happened when a little girl in New York City was curious as to what was inside a car with its door left open: she and her mother ended up arrested, after she’d called her mother over to her; the larceny charges were dropped, thankfully, but I think the episode highlights a serious problem with such police practices.
Is the use of bait cars, and other types of bait, moral? I see some people on a Catholic forum have grappled with the question, as regards bait cars, at least.
Does it catch criminals? No doubt it does; as this clunky Wikipedia entry (which conflates a TV program showing footage from inside bait cars with the definition of bait cars themselves; somebody really needs to edit it, but anyway) notes:
The largest bait car fleet in North America, which employs the Minneapolis model, is operated by the Integrated Municipal Provincial Auto Crime Team (IMPACT), based in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. Surrey was designated the “car theft capital of North America” by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2002. Their bait car program was launched in 2004, and has contributed to a 55% drop in auto theft since then.
All well and good, in itself. But what about situations like that mother and daughter in New York City?
The wiki about the ‘reality’ TV show called ‘Bait-Car’ quotes an officer:
“John Q Public doesn’t climb into bait cars,” a Florida officer states. “We are talking about people who have been arrested time and time again. Everybody we’ve arrested with a bait car has had an extensive criminal record.”
Good for him and his department, that such has been the case. But while it no doubt will nab people who are habitual car thieves / thieves who steal stuff from inside cars, again, what about people like that mother and daughter? And it may also, as the Victoria story noted, catch a first-time offender – who wouldn’t have stolen that particular laptop if that bait car hadn’t been there, would he? Is that not entrapment, or at least, tempting one to a particular instance of commission of evil that might not have been engaged in, otherwise? Some on the Catholic forum linked earlier argue along such lines, and I’m inclined to agree.
What about someone who finds a ‘bait wallet’ on a park bench, and pockets it with the intent of taking it to a police station, only to have an officer jump out from behind a tree and arrest him or her with ‘theft’? What about ‘innocent until proven guilty’; would he or she be forced, as per droit civil rather than common law norms, to try to prove he or she was innocent, instead?
The bait-car wiki notes that:
Some argue that the use of bait cars is a form of entrapment, and therefore is unlawful. However, from a legal standpoint, bait cars are not considered entrapment because they merely afford criminals the opportunity to steal the car; entrapment, on the other hand, constitutes law enforcement persuading or encouraging a person to commit a crime that they would not have committed otherwise.
Okay, so there may be a legal distinction, but I’m not so sure it’s a distinction with a real difference, morally speaking. Because if a given bait car were not parked at a specific location, or a bait wallet left on a specific park bench, there wouldn’t be a potential crime to be committed, and arguably, parking a car in a vulnerable location, and leaving it unlocked, or leaving a wallet on a park bench, is enticing someone towards committing a particular evil that they wouldn’t have otherwise committed, had not the police dangled the carrot in front of them, even if not actually goading them into taking it. It’s like punishing an evil thought or impulse, by providing an easy target for that particular impulse. When it nabs a first-time offender, how can anyone reasonably conclude otherwise? Is such enticement fundamentally that different from entrapment?
(By the way, as an aside, I find the idea of turning such CCTV footage from inside a bait car into a ‘reality’ show utterly abhorrent; should actual police work be turned into ‘entertainment’ for TV viewers? But then, I’ve always felt that way about the show ‘COPS’, too.)
I want to ask another, related (in my opinion) and perhaps highly provocative question: if anyone agrees with me that this police practice is morally problematic, if not outright wrong, then what about police posing as minors online to nab would-be pedophiles? Is that any different; if so, how? Far as I can see, it’s similar, with the exception of the fact that in such cases, one is unlikely to nab anyone without pedophilic inclinations, of course. But shouldn’t we be charging people either for actual crimes committed, or attempts to commit an actual crime involving a real person, rather than one set up by law enforcement themselves? Might not first-time offenders, who might not otherwise have offended, also end up nabbed, and isn’t that morally problematic?
Finally, anyone read the Philip K. Dick sci-fi story ‘Minority Report’ or see the movie based upon it? Dick imagined a society where, through precognition of future events, crimes could be caught before they were committed, and the would-be perps arrested on the basis that they would have committed those crimes.
How are bait cars, bait wallets, or online ‘jailbait’ pedophile ‘sting’ operations that different?
Should that not trouble us?
Just a thought.
*Update: Simon Grey has posted a response to this; I in turn have responded in the comments here, to his post, since he does not currently allow comments at his blog, as we do.