Civil liberties can erode very quickly. Catalyzing events like 9/11 can propel legislation over night changing the way we live. Not all rights, however, disappear over night. Some erode slowly and beyond the scope of the average citizen. Such is the case with a recent trend in police work. Committing crime, to prevent crime. In a number of police departments across the country, cops are breaking into your car to protect your valuables from would be auto burglars.
The New Haven PD is getting ready to roll out a new program where if an officer finds your car unlocked, he will enter it, collect any of your property in plain view, and take it back to the station for “safe keeping.” If this seems like a blatant violation of your rights, I would agree with you. While good intentions are abound, the road to hell was paved with the like. Typical burglary statutes read something along the lines of, to enter a dwelling, structure or conveyance with the intent to commit a crime therein. Fundamentally if you enter car or building with the intent to commit a crime, you committed a burglary. The statute should still apply if the subject entering your vehicle is a cop. According to a spokesperson from the New Haven PD, in the case where prescription drugs may be left n a vehicle, a theft would lead to more drugs on the street.
This idea is not a new one. This type of intrusion by police has been going on for at least six years in Pinellas County Florida. Sheriff Bob Gaultieri has defended his practice of ordering deputies to check car doors to verify they are locked. When a deputy finds an unlocked door, they are supposed to open it, leave a Pinellas Sheriff “Lock It Up” flier, then close and lock the door. Again, good intentions could eventually land the sheriff in hot water. While it may seem like there is no harm here, there are a ton of circumstances which may lead officers into a legal gray area and open to civil action. What if you don’t have a key and can no longer get into your vehicle? Well Sheriff Bob said that if someone needs to get into their car, they will provide a locksmith at no cost. Well that cost comes from somewhere, most likely YOU the tax payer.
What if one of these officers comes across evidence of a crime? What happens to the probable cause? If a cop enters the vehicle, leaves one of their fliers and happens to come across a large pool of blood? Well if that would have led to an arrest of some kind, all that evidence is now fruit of the poisonous tree and will be excluded from evidence along with all the other evidence it led to. In a case like this, the officer does more harm than good. The next extension of allowing a policy like this, is feeding the overzealous officer. Trust me when I tell you that once cops are given an inch, they find legal loopholes or what I call “creative articulation” to take a mile. If programs like this become the norm, it will open a tsunami of potential illegal search cases that law enforcement will be forced to deal with.
While this approach may seem noble on the surface, it is as sinister as it sounds. Strangers going through your car to stop strangers from going through your car. First in Florida, then in Connecticut, I wouldn’t be surprised if this type of practice is more prevalent while still remaining under the radar. One at a time, our rights appear to dwindle. This time not at the hands of legislators but at the hands of law enforcement themselves. Normally this is when I would tell you what you can do about it, but today I am not quite sure. This one I’ll have to write off as another characteristic of our American police state.