Connecticut Police Announce Plan To Open Unlocked Vehicles And Seize Valuables
from the WE-CARE-BECAUSE-YOU-DON'T dept
No criminal activity. No suspicion of wrongdoing. Just cops wandering around, opening car doors and seizing valuables. But they’re doing it for YOU.
Officers in East Rock (CT) are starting a pilot program.
“Cars will be checked for visible valuables,” said New Haven City Spokesperson Laurence Grotheer.
If they see a valuable Grotheer says they’ll take it if your car doors are unlocked. They’ll leave a note and you can pick it up at the police station property room.
Arguably, residents will be better off having their valuables stolen by the police rather than by criminals. But what gives cops the right to enter vehicles and take stuff? The city’s spokesperson says it’s built right into warrant exception statutes.
Grotheer says there’s a *caretaker* provision in state law that allows them to do it.
“There is an exemption in standard search warrant provisions to allow for this caretaker action,” said Grotheer.
Except that’s not really what the “caretaker” provision is for. Generally, it’s used to allow officers to approach and question motorists who appear to be in distress or enter homes in cases of medical emergencies, etc. What it’s not there for is the seizure of valuables under the assumption that someone’s poor personal decision may result in criminal activity at some undetermined point in the future.
What the exception does do is wholly separate police searches and seizures from law enforcement purposes.
Community Caretaker Function: The Courts have created a Caretaker exception under which local police officers are charged with community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to violation of any criminal statute An example is checking on motorists parked in rest areas, especially in winter, or opening an unlocked door of a parked vehicle when the officer is acting out of concern for the well-being of the person inside.
This removes pesky roadblocks like “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” That’s why it’s routinely abused to perform warrantless searches. Several court decisions related to “community caretaking” exceptions can be found at the indispensable FourthAmendment.com.
Even if we had determined that the police were exercising a bona fide community caretaker function when they searched Matalonis’s residence, the entry would not fall within the community caretaker exception because it fails under the third inquiry–“whether the public interest outweighs the intrusion upon the privacy of the individual such that the community caretaker function was reasonably exercised within the context of a home.”
Warrantless entry into defendant’s car at the scene of a three vehicle accident, when she was being attended to by paramedics to see if she was alright, was not legally sustainable entry under the community caretaking function because she was still there and conversing with EMTs. The officer never asked for consent to look for the papers; he just went into the car.
A couple kissing in a car is not particularized suspicion that a crime is occurring or about to occur. Instead of “moving them along,” the officer detained them, and the detention was unlawful. The state’s community caretaking justification for rousting them also failed.
But as there is no clear delineation of what does or doesn’t fall under the “community caretaking” warrant exception, searches and seizures are handled on a case-by-case (and state-by-state) basis when challenged in court by criminal defendants or plaintiffs in civil rights lawsuits. So, when the city’s spokesperson says the following, it’s unfortunately very true.
Grotheer says all laws are open to interpretation.
And most interpretations will favor law enforcement, who have a multitude of exceptions, including the incredibly expansive “good faith” exception, to insulate them against allegations of misusing their power.
The program raises several questions, most of which will remain unanswered as the New Haven police have chosen to speak solely through the city’s spokesperson.
First: Do the searches only implicate valuables visible through windows? Or are officers digging around in vehicles like the thieves they’re “saving” citizens from, reaching under seats, opening storage consoles or peeking in the glove compartment?
Second: If the police are simply emulating thieves, would this supposed “community caretaking” function allow them to seize vehicles if ignition keys are present in unlocked automobiles? If not, WHY NOT?
Third: What does the department define as a “valuable” for the purposes of its warrantless entry into unlocked vehicles? Is it simply wallets, checkbooks, credit cards or electronic devices? Or does it cover anything someone could conceivably take, like clothing, groceries or anything else that might be found in plain sight?
Fourth: Would this same exception allow officers to check for unlocked house doors and remove valuables from residences? Would this also allow the fire department to enter unlocked homes if a firefighter spotted oily rags or frayed cords or whatever through an open window?
As long as the city is going to “interpret” this exception to enter vehicles and seize valuables, it should at least maintain its consistency across all other areas. Crossing into a person’s home generally raises Fourth Amendment issues faster than unlocked vehicles on public streets, but considering the exception cited by the city is more frequently used to provide warrantless access to residences, it would only make sense for cops to go door-to-door to save citizens from their own careless actions.
I have reached out to both the city and police department for more clarification but I’m not expecting any answers. My guess is this program will be shut down sometime in the next few days. The city has hugely miscalculated the public’s receptiveness to its warrantless search and seizure “public service.” When it does get shut down, it will likely be accompanied by complaints about the public’s lack of gratitude towards its ever-vigilant public servants. But like so many other ill-conceived efforts made on the “behalf” of the public, it appears to have been done without any consideration of the public’s concerns.
UPDATE: No answers to the questions, but city spokesperson Laurence Grotheer informs me the program is now officially dead.
Thank you for reaching out about this…
After unanticipated press coverage sufficiently raised community awareness about this issue, NHPD plans for this initiative have been shelved…
Yeah, it sucks when the people find out about the things the government plans to do to them for their own safety. The wording of Grotheer’s statement is very peculiar. He obviously supported the program during earlier statements to the same press he didn’t anticipate would turn it into a “thing,” but trots out the phrase “community awareness” as though he’s never used it in this context before. “Community awareness” is always a good thing (and should precede implementation of dubious programs rather than follow behind it) but in this bizarre sentence, it’s almost portrayed as the unfortunate byproduct of an apparent press ambush.