EBR Sheriff says initiative underway to reduce car burglaries

East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office

What seemed like a fairly straightforward idea to help the community — having East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies check vehicles to make sure the owners are doing everything they can to decrease the likelihood of the vehicles being burglarized or stolen — is raising some eyebrows in the legal community.

Two local lawyers wonder if the visual inspections will be masking the possibility that deputies could be checking for contraband, illegal drugs or stolen goods while using the checks to circumvent search and seizure laws — an assertion denied by sheriff’s officials.

Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said the initiative is to bring awareness to the public about notoriously hard-to-solve vehicle burglaries and how people can protect themselves and secure their vehicles.

“The majority of vehicle burglaries worked by our office involve unlocked doors and valuables in plain sight,” Gautreaux said in a news release announcing the initiative.

In the course of their normal patrols, deputies will begin visually inspecting vehicles for unlocked doors, cracked windows and valuable items left in plain sight that could lead to a vehicle being targeted by criminals.

Upon completing the vehicle check, deputies will leave fliers folded up like greeting cards on the vehicle, letting the drivers know if they passed or failed the cursory observation, and if so, why their vehicle failed inspection, Gautreaux said.

The fliers will include safety tips, such as parking a vehicle in a well-lit parking lot that is visible to people nearby and never leaving a garage door opener in the vehicle because it gives thieves access to the home.

Deputies began the inspections Tuesday.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks stressed deputies will not search vehicles for illegal drugs, contraband or stolen goods, but just observe the vehicles within the parameters of making sure the vehicles are not an open invitation to burglars.

She also stressed deputies will not touch the vehicles during the inspection.

“This is strictly observation,” she said. “They are not going out of their way to do to this. It’s something they are going to do as part of their regular patrols.”

Some lawyers are not convinced.

“The problem will arise when they look inside of a car and see something that they believe to be contraband and suspicious and rely upon the plain view doctrine, which is an exception to the search warrant, in order to seize the material and make an arrest,” local defense attorney Jim Boren said.

The plain view doctrine stipulates law enforcement does not need a search warrant to seize evidence of criminal activity if it is in plain view. The doctrine, Boren said, is not always accepted in court.

“Many criminal defense lawyers are suspicious of the government and law enforcement and believe that they take advantage of their positions in ways that they should not,” Boren said. “The right of privacy and the right of law enforcement always collide and that’s what the battles are always about in court in motions to suppress (evidence).”

Mary Olive Pierson, another local defense attorney, agreed with Boren.

“If they’re walking by your car and they see a boatload of marijuana in it, that’s one thing. But if they’re intentionally walking by and inspect what’s inside, that could lead to all kind of consequences and particularly if they’re going to use this as an excuse to go in certain neighborhoods to look at certain cars on the street,” she said.

Pierson said she views the initiative as a way to get around the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.

If she had to argue in court against a seizure stemming from this policy, she said, she would contend deputies did not have probable cause to search the car or even be near the car.

“This has too many pitfalls,” she said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he supports the initiative and does not believe deputies will use this as an excuse to search vehicles.

“I think that this is a good way to raise awareness and cut down on burglaries and hopefully keep otherwise stolen guns out of the hands of criminals and drug addicts,” he wrote in an email. He said many of the guns used in crimes were stolen from vehicles.

Hicks said they implemented the policy because they have seen an increase in residential and vehicular burglaries in the past five years.

“We estimate that more than 90 percent of our vehicle burglaries involve unlocked vehicles,” Hicks said. “From what we’ve seen, thieves are going through neighborhoods and parking lots looking for unlocked vehicles with valuables.”

She pointed to similar programs in Texas and Tennessee as well as other parishes in Louisiana, such as Calcasieu.

Calcasieu Parish Sheriff Tony Mancuso said they began a similar program three years ago, and while he could not provide numbers, he said vehicle burglaries are down in the parish.

Mancuso said they have had no complaints from the community about the visual checks.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union, wondered why the Sheriff’s Office decided to second-guess people’s decisions to leave their windows down or car doors open, especially on hot summer days.

“People have reasons for doing this and it’s not the police department’s business to be the nanny of everybody and kind of second-guess what their decisions are,” she said. “Rather than spending their time second-guessing everyone’s decision, they really should spend their time actually trying to deal with serious crime.”