Are ‘bait cars’ and similar police-laid ‘bait’ moral, or are they a form of enticement?

29 Sep

Sticker on a Victoria, B.C. bait car. Picture taken by the Victoria Police Department.

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.[5] Their bait car program was launched in 2004, and has contributed to a 55% drop in auto theft since then.[6]

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.”[3]

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.


21 responses to “Are ‘bait cars’ and similar police-laid ‘bait’ moral, or are they a form of enticement?

  1. Gerry T. Neal

    September 29, 2013 at 1:57 am

    The distinction between this sort of thing and entrapment strikes me as being a distinction without a meaningful difference. I very much dislike this sort of police behaviour. Not only does it seem to be highly dubious if not highly unethical, it sends the message that the police are devious, tricky, sneaky, and not to be trusted. In otherwords it undermines public confidence in the authorities, forcing them to rely more and more on such sleazy tactics and on brute force, in turn undermining public confidence in their authority even further, in a vicious spiral that can only lead to what Sam Francis called anarcho-tyranny.

  2. Will S.

    September 29, 2013 at 2:02 am

    Thank you, Gerry! Agree 100%.

    I fear we are already at anarcho-tyranny, though, and that the police are indeed in fact devious, tricky, sneaky, and definitely not to be trusted.

    And tyrannical themselves, in how they enforce the law…

  3. infowarrior1

    September 29, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    @Will S.

    You think they are using the tactics of this famous general Sun Tzu?

    I will quote:

    “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

  4. Will S.

    September 29, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Well infowarrior1, if they are, then that itself is telling, that they view the public as an enemy with whom they are at war – and yes, I say the public, and not merely criminals, because if they really cared about ‘serving and protecting’ the public, as per the motto of many police forces, they would be more careful about casting nets so broad that people who never previously offended could end up falling into them, including relative innocents like a curious child and her mother…

    War tactics really shouldn’t be used by police forces; they should be left to warriors… SWAT Teams and bait cars, etc., are bullshit, overkill measures, which ought not be used on a peaceful civilian population in peacetime; and if drugs were legalized, there’d be no need for anti-gang-warfare units, or much less, because there’d be a lot less organized crime.

  5. Lena S.

    September 30, 2013 at 10:01 am

    I don’t really trust the police much as it is and this just makes them seem less trustworthy.

    A lot of the online ‘sting’ kind of things seem more like a frame-up than any useful cleaning up of society. All they’ll catch with this car thing is a few opportunists, and aren’t most of us somewhat like that? (As with the wallet – although I do think most people would look inside for some ID to see if they can return it to whom it belongs).

  6. Will S.

    September 30, 2013 at 11:00 am

    I don’t trust them, either, Lena; they’re far too ready to charge people on the slightest suspicion, whether warranted or not.

    Indeed, too broad a net, these measures.

  7. Red

    October 2, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Letting the police do any undercover or underhanded work like just leads to the police becoming the secret police. That being said bait cars an excellent idea to deal with car theft, I just want someone beside the police executing it.

  8. Will S.

    October 2, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    That strikes me as diabolically clever, potentially: imagine the government contracting it out to a third-party, so that their hands stay officially clean. Brrrr! Strikes me as even worse than this, in that sense. 🙂

  9. Mr. Rational

    October 3, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Some Good Samaritan might notice that a bait car had keys in the ignition, and do something like close the windows and lock the doors (with keys inside) to prevent it from being stolen.  If police pounce before a drive-off, they’ve not established any crime at all.

    • Will S.

      October 3, 2013 at 10:50 am

      Exactly. It’s completely wrong; puts the onus on the accused to try to establish innocence rather than the State proving guilt. That’s Napoleonic law, not English common law, and dammit, it’s not how we English-speaking peoples do justice!

  10. oogenhand

    October 11, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    Reblogged this on oogenhand.

  11. alcestiseshtemoa

    October 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    I can see the validity of both views.

  12. alcestiseshtemoa

    October 13, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    Meaning, both the pro-bait and anti-bait viewpoints.

  13. Will S.

    October 13, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    So can I, but I find the anti- arguments more compelling; in fact, I didn’t even need them, to feel in my gut how wrong such practices are…

  14. Will S.

    November 3, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    (Can’t respond there, since comments are disabled on his blog.)

    Fair enough; I’m not going to get taken in by a bait car, either.

    Nor a bait wallet. But I might pick up a bait wallet, to turn it in. Should I get nabbed by a cop hiding behind a tree, and have to prove my innocence?

    Maybe, now knowing cops do this, I might just leave behind any wallets I encounter on a park bench, henceforth. Don’t bother touching them, trying to help out.

    So then real losers of wallets might never recover them, if only real thieves would touch them.

    Is that the type of society we want to encourage?

    And what of the woman and the child I cited? There can be relative innocents snared by this kind of thing. Is it worth it?

    Or the first-time offender who nabbed the laptop from the bait car? There are first-time offenders who do get nabbed by these; does it matter how small a proportion it is? I’m not utilitarian; is it right to just reason that most of those caught are career criminals anyway, when at least some are not?

    I do realize that motivation to act, and temptation, are two different things. Yet in the instance of that laptop-nabber, he had never committed such a crime before, and can it not be argued that he only did so in this particular circumstance because he was tempted by this particular easy target, and that in the absence of such, might he never have done it after that point? We’ll never know, of course. Now he’s an actual thief, where he hadn’t been one till now.

    I find that disturbing, even though he certainly was in the wrong to steal it. He wouldn’t have stolen it, if it hadn’t been there, just as he hadn’t stolen anything prior. I cannot say whether he wouldn’t have stolen something eventually, but I’d like to think, given his track record until then, that maybe, just maybe, he would have continued to not steal things, despite the evil impulse he gave into in this particular circumstance – provided by the police.

    Maybe I’m just too naïve, and we should let some previously-innocent people have the opportunity to get charged for crimes they have never committed previously, just because most of the people nabbed by this sort of thing are habitual criminals. Or that mother of the child who was too curious; maybe we need to accept that sort of thing, for the greater good.

    But I’m not convinced.

    Maybe, by extension, we should have bait diamond engagement gold rings put in clothing stores between sweaters, so we’d catch the sort of people who would pocket gold rings they wouldn’t otherwise normally find in such places, and nab them.

    We could do that everywhere! What fun. Fill jail cells with people who are capable of being tempted to evil, by providing them the chance!

    If it were just big items like cars, without laptops, wallets, things like that, I could perhaps see a case; I will concede that much.

    But the fact that it goes beyond just bait cars, strikes me as mission creep, trying to nap not just thieves of big items, but smaller ones, too – who are even more likely to be first-time offenders, relative innocents.

  15. Will S.

    November 3, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Interestingly, Simon Grey links this old post in his post:

    I agree with him re: active crime prevention being problematic, undesirable; I even cited Minority Report myself in this post, to that effect.

    But contra Simon Grey, I fail to see how these bait cars are not the same thing.

  16. Will S.

    November 3, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    “The entire premise of the criminal justice is that one is assumed innocent until proven guilty, and the whole purpose of this foundation is to protect the innocent not the guilty.”

    I completely agree; that’s the principle of English common law, contra the Napoleonic Code, or droit civil, where it’s the other way around; one is presumed guilty, and has to establish one’s innocence.

    Which is part of why I have a problem with this: I’m concerned it can flip it around. Esp. in the cases of finding a bait wallet on a park bench, wishing to return it, then getting nabbed, having to establish one’s innocence, esp. if you put it in your pocket to carry it, looking like you were pocketing it.

    Certainly, with a bait car, it may be different. But I still have the concerns I mentioned about those, and I take issue with the whole ‘bait’ thing in general, whether the bait be big or small, cheap or expensive, relatively speaking.

  17. Will S.

    November 5, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Now this:

    I have less of an issue with; if the undercover agents are waiting for would-be joins to approach first, not leading them on, then it’s not ‘entrapment’.

    Can’t believe many are taken in by that CGI (clearly) avatar, though.

  18. Alex.

    January 2, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    I have been the victim of deliberate Police entrapment for a sex crime in the UK WHICH WOULD NOT HAVE TAKEN PLACE WITHOUT MASSIVE ‘ASSISTANCE AND INCITEMENT’ FROM THE POLICE.

    It is worth bearing in mind that the Police almost always use psychologically trained covert officers whose sole aim is to ‘get a nicking’. Anyone who tells you that they are acting in order to prevent crime does not know what they are talking about. I could write reams about this.

    The true role of A Police force is the suppression of crime and the investigation of it should it occur, basically nothing else..

    My life has been destroyed to achieve absolutely nothing!! except tick a few boxes and reach a few Government targets.

    Let’s face it, it is sooo much easier for the Police to set up a crime and ‘solve’ it than it is to actually find and arrest a genuine offender; same boxes ticked, same targets reached, senior officers and politicians happy.

    The degree of corruption and unlawful practices within the Police (all forces within the UK) will never be believed until it has been formally exposed and not suppressed.

    In my case I am working on a major exposé of this Police corruption which will no doubt mean that I shall be blighted by them for the rest of my life, but consider this worth it. Like elephants, the Police never forget, but somebody has got to create a level of momentum to stop deliberate entrapment which seems to be taking place on a semi industrial scale in the UK. I hope that this will be myself.

    with a bit of luck at least two ‘officers’ will be banged up with several others watching their backs.

    If anybody wishes to add something to this post, my email is at the end of the piece, anything welcome.

    This is NOT a case of sour grapes, prior to my experience I was generally very pro-police. It takes something like my set up to open one’s eyes to what is actually being carried on by the STATE supposedly in the name of the people, but not in MY name.

    Never forget The Lord’s prayer says

    ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’

    It would seem that the Police work to a higher authority. Themselves.

  19. Will S.

    January 2, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    I’m not surprised to hear that things are that bad in Airstrip One, Alex; police are bad enough here in North America; I can only imagine what they’re like in your less free country…

    You mention the Lord’s Prayer; I certainly would encourage you to turn to the Lord, as He is our help, if we but trust in Him.

    I will pray for you.


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