Carlton: Cops opening our cars crosses a line – Tampabay.com

Posted: Friday, June 12, 2015

Citizens do not lock their cars and are astonished — astonished! — to find their vehicles stolen, or at least burgled right down to the air freshener hanging from the rearview. And sometimes it’s not just stereos and spare change that disappear — it’s guns.

So when traditional attempts at public awareness about the need to lock our cars weren’t working, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office started something else. Six years ago, deputies began checking car doors. When they found one unlocked, they opened it.

The next morning, a driver would find a flier picturing a sinister car burglar and the words LOCK IT UP! — informing them a deputy had opened their car, left this notice inside and locked it for them. (And no, they did not just leave a flier outside the car, where it might as well say I’M AN UNLOCKED CAR BURGLE ME!)

So: Is this an altruistically motivated police plan to stop the kinds of crime some of us make all too easy?

No question.

And is it okay for law enforcement officers to open your car like this?

Not if you care about government authority versus your privacy. Unless it’s an emergency, law enforcement officers should not be in our cars without permission or probable cause, period.

The Times’ Laura C. Morel reported this week on a St. Petersburg attorney representing an unnamed man who was upset to learn a deputy had put one of those fliers in his car.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says they knew there could be concerns, which is why they administer the flier program very strictly. Deputies do not enter and search cars, he says. In six years, the Sheriff’s Office has not made one criminal case on anything found in one of these unlocked cars. “Because we don’t do that,” he says.

Still, you can imagine what a handy tool this program could become in cop shops with different standards.

Gualtieri says public awareness campaigns reminding us to lock our cars in areas where car burglary is a top-property crime have not worked. People leave them unlocked with valuable iPads and even the keys (to make stealing them super easy) inside.

He says that since 2013, 83 percent of guns stolen from cars came from unlocked ones.

And it’s interesting how people view issues of public safety and privacy differently here. Gualtieri says the Sheriff’s Office gets thanks for this. A colleague points out that if a neighbor reached in and locked your car for you, you would thank him later. But a neighbor is not an officer with a lot of power, including the ability to arrest you.

And I can’t get past the violation of privacy that would be any part of a cop in my car without cause. And you can’t imagine a car more boring to search than mine.

“Whether they’ve made a case or searched a car in the six years has nothing to do with it,” says Tampa lawyer Lyann Goudie. “The point is that you are not allowed to open up my car door and go in, whether you wear a badge or you’re a criminal.”

Say there was a rash of burglaries in your neighborhood — would that make it okay for police to try your front door and, if they found it unlocked, open it?

I’m going with no on that one, too.

The sheriff says criticism of the policy is fair enough.

“But if this brings more attention to it and more people lock their cars because of it,” he says, “that’s a good thing.”

Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

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