Thursday, December 31, 2009

Down on the Ground!

Most of us have never heard those words and hope that we never do. Such was the case of Mark Ledford and his girlfriend Asia Ward when they were ordered to do so by members of the Austin Police Department early one evening in front of their home.

Three days earlier, on a Wednesday, Mark, who works for a real estate firm, came home to find a green Honda Accord parked in front of his house in an upper-class neighborhood of Austin. As he walked by the car, he noted that the windows were rolled down and the keys were in the ignition. He assumed that the car belonged to someone visiting his girlfriend, but when he entered his house to find only his girlfriend home, he thought, “Oh, well, their probably visiting a neighbor.”

The next morning, the car was still parked there and he assumed that someone was visiting from out of town or had simply slept over. Mark continued on to work at the real estate firm and forgot about the little green Honda parked in front of his home. But that night, the car was still there, apparently unmoved.

The young couple became concerned about the car, specifically what had happened toe driver of the car. Mark knew most of his neighbors and had never seen the car in the neighborhood before. He decided to see if he could locate the owner to tell them that leaving the keys in the ignition and the windows rolled down was not a good idea. He went door-to-door in the neighborhood but no one knew anything about the car. Neighbors expressed concern over the car and why it might have been abandoned in front of their homes.

Finding no owner and no one who knew anything about the car, Mark decided that maybe the car had been stolen and abandoned in front of his home, so he did what most of us would have done - he called the police. Two police officers showed up after a while and when Mark asked them, “isn’t it strange that someone parked their car there with the windows rolled down and the keys in it?”

The police responded with, “It’s parked legally. What’s the problem?” After seven minutes of conversation, the police officers left without so much as looking at the car or it’s contents. Mark and Asia thought this was strange, that the police acted like they didn’t care about whether the car was stolen or that the driver had disappeared. But they had done all that they could do.

That morning as Mark left to go to work the car was there and when he came home that evening he grew more concerned. He and Asia begin to worry and they could only imagine the worse. They knew that if their car was stolen and someone found it setting on a residential street they would want it reported. But the police had not written up a report on the car. So there was no record of the car and it’s location.

They also worried about what has happened to the driver. Mark and Asia went out to look at the car and noticed what appeared to be a top to a woman’s bikini in the back seat and the key ring hanging from the ignition certainly looked like they belonged to a woman. But, as they walked around the car, they became increasingly worried. The drivers side rear window had been broken and there was shattered glass on the seat. There was also a pair of men’s work boots and some rope in the car.

While on the surface there was nothing there to tie the car or the missing driver to a crime, it did worry Mark and Asia. Perhaps from watching too many cop shows on television or reading too many murder mysteries the couple had questions. Who had left the car there, and why? What if something strange was going on? Shouldn't the police investigate?

On Saturday night the couple went out to rent a movie and buy some ice cream. They noticed the car and their worries returned. When they returned to the house, Ledford went back outside and starred at the car for a long time. He knew that something had to be done. He went back in the house and told Asia that he was going to look in the car to see if he could locate the owner. Maybe there was some mail, a bill with the owners name and if so, all he had to do was call them and tell them that their car was parked out front of his home. Problem solved.

However, with their overactive minds and because of the broken rear side window, the couple still considered that the car might have been involved in a crime. The couple consider that they had reported the car to the police and they did nothing. It was time to get to the bottom of this. Ledford decided to put on a pair of gloves thinking, if this is a crime scene he didn’t want to leave any fingerprints.

They walked down their drive to the parked car and opened the door. They were searching for something that would lead them to the owner of the car. With no flashlight handy, Mark used his cell phone to illuminate the interior of the car to inspect the car’s interior. Not finding anything, he took the keys from the ignition to check the trunk, but the trunk lock was jammed. Still nothing. Mark put the keys back in the ignition and as he and Asia stood on the sidewalk thinking about what to do, a police car with flashing lights sped around the corner toward them. Police officers jumped from the car as it rolled to a stop behind the Honda and begin yelling, “GET ON THE GROUND, NOW!

Mark tried to explain that he was the homeowner and that he was simply inspecting the car to identify the owner. The police only kept waving their guns and yelling for the couple to get on the ground.

The couple were handcuffed as they lie on the damp ground. The police read them their rights and they waived their right to a lawyer. Finally, Detective John Spillers showed up and they explained their story to him. Neither Mark nor Asia had ever been arrested and had no criminal record. The police eventually took the cuffs off of the couple and released them.

Shaken, but glad to have survived the incident of having police wave guns in their face, the couple went into their home, ate their ice cream and watched a movie. Later, they were still angry at what had transpired. How could they have done the wrong thing? They were only trying to help. The couple went to bed that night thinking the ordeal was over and that perhaps they should think twice before trying to be good Samaritans.

But the ordeal was not over for the young couple. Not by a long shot. Sixteen days later, on Asia’s birthday, the police knocked on their door again. In lieu of drawn guns they came with an affidavit and arrested the couple on a charge of burglary of a vehicle, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and up to a $4,000 fine. The affidavit, written by Detective John Spillers, notes that Ledford was wearing gloves to avoid leaving prints, and both he and his girlfriend "admitted that Mark had tried to get in the trunk."

Of course, as it often the case with arrest affidavits, it did not mention both sides of the case. It did not state that the couple had called police to report the car or that the car was parked in front of their home for three days with the windows rolled down and the keys in the ignition. Nor, did it mention the broken rear window and the shattered glass on the rear seat. Any one of which would have caused a reasonable person to become suspicious and look in the car.

Detective Spiller stated in the affidavit that the defendant’s actions constituted more than mere curiosity or trying to locate the owner’s information. And is always the case, Detective Spiller nor the prosecutor, Assistant County Attorney Vicki Ashley, are commenting on the case.

Mark and Asia say they were offered deferred prosecution, which would waive any penalties as long as they sign a confession and don't commit a crime for a year. But they refuse to confess to an offense they say they didn't commit.

"If they want to charge us with trespassing, then fine, we’re guilty," Ward said. "But we did not burglarize a vehicle."

But wait! This is not the end of the story. The affidavit did not tell the whole story nor did the officers involved in the incident. Remember, those two officers who responded to the initial call to investigate the parked car? As it turns out they knew exactly why the Honda was parked in front of the couple’s home.

Remember how quickly the police came speeding around the corner when Mark and Asia were looking in the car? They were in on the deal too. You see the car wasn’t stolen or had it been involved in a crime. The police themselves had purposely left the little green Honda Accord parked in front of Mark’s home.

The Honda was a “bait vehicle,” armed with video surveillance equipment, GPS tracking system and an alarm, which notified the police that the vehicle had been tampered with. The Austin police have been using the bait vehicle program since 1997 and have up to nine cars parked at any one time on the streets. They simply park the car, leave the keys in the ignition and wait for someone to take the bait. The GPS tracking units make the cars easy to find and because the entire episode is captured on videotape, a conviction is easy to secure. The trunk of the car is filled with equipment and that’s why the trunk is secured.

Sergeant Oliver Tate with the Auto Theft Interdiction Unit, which oversees the bait car program stated that the bait car program produced 70 warrants or arrests in 2008. That’s right they don’t always catch the person who tampers with or steals the car. This year they have had only 13 warrants or arrests, down considerably and there is a push on to make more arrests to keep the program alive. They refuse to say how much the program costs, but in 2007, the City Council received an $85,287 one-year grant from the state for the bait car equipment alone.

The bait car program is being used in police departments throughout the United States. The police state that the program is not generally considered entrapment because the police don’t actively encourage people to burglarize or steal the vehicle but only provide the temptation. Although police are not talking about the number of convictions that have resulted from the arrests, they do admit that the youngest person arrested was only 13 years old.

Perhaps the police departments don’t think this through clearly. While they are stating the purpose of the program is supposed to act as a deterrent to auto burglary and theft, they are actually promoting the acts of crime. This doesn’t make sense to most people. We have been made to believe that the deterrent is supposed to be the penalty for a crime - you steal a car and you go to jail.

Sergeant Tate states that they look at the past auto burglary and theft cases and attempt to set up similar scenarios to match. They often leave a car parked in front of a convenience store with the keys in the ignition with the engine running in an attempt to get someone to steal the car. Or they park the car in a high crime area, leaving the keys in the ignition and the windows rolled down. He stated that the police attempt to set up the most tempting situations to make as many arrests as possible.

The police are not acting alone in this. The cars are often supplied by insurance companies, which supposedly have a stake in reducing car burglaries and theft. But, even this is flawed. The insurance companies only make money if people have the fear that their vehicle is burglarized or stolen. If the crimes went away – so would the billons of insurance money. No business purposefully runs themselves out of business.

And what about that slogan on the side of the police cars – To Protect and Serve? Who are they protecting and serving with the bait program? It would seem that there are better ways of protecting and serving the tax payers than by tempting the unsuspecting 13-year-old children into going for a joy ride. And, speaking of joy rides…

It seems another neighbor also called the police department after observing the car sitting there for days. Again, nothing was done about the report and the police continued to leave the car in place. The neighbors spoke about the car and why someone would just leave it there for days. They came to the conclusion that someone had broken down and abandoned the car. A young man visiting with the neighbor that called police, decided to see if the car was broken down. He drove the car about 50-feet and then backed up and parked the vehicle in the same place it had been setting.

That joy ride netted the young man, who had no prior criminal record, an arrest. He was charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, a felony offense. The charge was later reduced to a Class A misdemeanor, and the young man was given deferred adjudication and is now serving an 18-month probation. The test drive cost him dearly. Now he has a criminal record that will haunt him for the rest of his life. He is also out the $5,000 lawyer fee to get released from jail, and he has to pay $190 a month to his probation officer for the next 18-months.

All of this could have been avoided if the police had simply informed the citizens in the neighborhood that the bait car was being left there and asked that they cooperate with the police department. If the police had told the concerned callers that tried to report the car the truth, three arrests of innocent people could have been avoided.

But is leaving these bait cars on the street really a good idea. These are working cars, with a full tank of gas and with keys in the ignition. What is to keep a child of any age from crawling into the car and going for a joy ride? This particular car was left near McCallum High School with lots of school kids walking by each day. It would surely have tempted some kid to dare another kid to take the car for a joy ride.

We have all seen the car chases on the 10:00 p.m. news, which endanger lives and property as the Keystone-like cops chase the car around town at high speed, sideswiping bystanders, driving down one-way streets, and across yards where small children are playing. And, we all know how the chase ends – usually when the car hits another car or the front of a home.

During these chases is a total disregard to protect and serve anyone other than making the arrest, which ultimately puts money in the coffers of the police. And, yes, arrests are about the money. Crime seems to pay more to the police, lawyers, court systems, jails and prisons than it does the criminals. Of course, the criminals shouldn’t reap benefits from crime, but still.

Sergeant Tate states that he hasn’t heard of a police department being held liable for what happens when a bait car is driven away. As far as the police department is concerned, he said, it doesn't matter whether it's a hardened auto thief who takes the bait or an opportunist who does so simply because a vehicle is there for the taking.

"Let me ask you something: If you see a car with the keys in it, would you take it?" Sargeant Tate said. "There are hundreds of people walking by these cars, and they make the choice to keep walking. The bottom line is this: If you see a car that doesn't belong to you, don't take it."

But, maybe the police department be worried about liability. Maybe they should be worried about their responsibility to the public and to the safety of all involved. Maybe they should be concerned with morality. Because if they are not, then who will protect and serve us?

Meanwhile, Mark and Asia said their arrest has had a huge impact on their lives. Ward said she suspects she's already been turned down for two jobs and a volunteer position because of the criminal charge against her.

The experience has made them both more cynical, both about law enforcement and the ability to make a difference in the world by doing the right thing. "To hell with being a concerned citizen," Mark said. "You hear stories of someone getting mugged and no one gets involved. Now I see why."

The couple will be in court tomorrow to explain their story to a judge. They are hopeful that right will prevail and that the judge will be clearheaded enough to see the injustice of the incident. Good luck with that one!