Moving Target: The NOPD baits the homeless and other perpetrators with beer, candy and cigarettes to net burglary arrests

MOVING TARGET

The NOPD baits the homeless and other perpetrators with beer, candy and cigarettes to net burglary arrests

by Richard A. Webster
CityBusiness Photo
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Editor’s Note: This story begins a three-part series on how police and prosecutors are spending public resources seeking lengthy prison sentences for non-violent, low-level crimes.

 

A pack of Kool cigarettes, a can of Budweiser and a box of Boston Baked Beans sat on the dashboard of an unlocked car with the windows rolled down at 1732 Canal St.

Somewhere nearby two New Orleans Police Department officers watched and waited for someone to reach into the bait car and snatch the items.

They wouldn’t have to wait long, as the police parked the car just one block away from a homeless encampment under the Claiborne Avenue overpass, where dozens of desperate, hungry and addicted people lived in a makeshift village of tents.

The first arrest was made at 12:25 p.m. June 10 when police say the initial suspect took the bait and stole a can of beer. The second arrest was made at 4:05 p.m. when police say a second suspect took the cigarettes, beer and candy.

For stealing less than $6 in items, the police charged the two homeless men with simple burglary, a felony that can carry up to 12 years in prison. Neither suspect had any prior arrests in Orleans Parish.

A month later, the men remain in Orleans Parish Prison awaiting court dates and the possibility they will spend the better part of the next decade in state prison.

“I don’t know what the policing justification is for such an action,” said Pamela Metzger, associate professor of law at Tulane University Law School. “But on a fundamental human level, it smacks of a meanness, a pettiness, a spitefulness that has no place in a city as broken as this one. It’s a way of manufacturing offenses that may not have otherwise existed.”

 

Resource allocation

At a time when the number of homicides in New Orleans continues to rise to record numbers, many question whether a sting operation designed to entice homeless people to commit felonies is the best use of public resources.

Not only does it take police officers off the street, but it clogs the courts and forces public defenders and the district attorney to use their limited resources and manpower to litigate “trivial offenses” instead of focusing efforts on more serious cases like homicide, said Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University.

“People are still dying left and right and yet we’re playing games with baked beans and Kool cigarettes,” Quigley said. “The police officers who did this should be personally embarrassed and their superiors and the elected officials who knew about this should go to confession.”

The NOPD did not respond to requests for comment, but Superintendent Warren Riley has previously defended the practice of arresting people for minor crimes as a useful way of catching habitual offenders.

At a legislative committee hearing in October, Riley said officers will arrest someone for a minor offense such as trespassing if that person has a history of burglary arrests.

But during the car sting, officers not only arrested six people with no prior arrests, they also charged them with felonies.

The “car burglary sting,” as one police report called the operation, took place June 10 and 11 in three locations and netted at least eight arrests. Of those eight arrests, six of the suspects had no prior offenses in Orleans Parish, one suspect was convicted of ATM fraud in 1999 and a second had two drug possession convictions.

Police charged all eight suspects, two of whom were listed as homeless, with felonious simple burglary instead of a lesser misdemeanor that would have carried a small fine and, at most, a few months in prison.

 

Sting or entrapment?

It is not uncommon for police to conduct a “catch and release” operation in search of people with outstanding warrants for violent offenses such as murder, rape or armed robbery, Metzger said.

“That makes sense. But what doesn’t make sense is holding these folks on felony charges if there’s not some other serious charge out there.”

Judson Mitchell, pro bono coordinator for the Loyola Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice, called into question the legality of such a sting, claiming it could be classified as entrapment.

It also could violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by targeting a specific group of people, said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana.

It’s no coincidence the NOPD specifically chose as bait Kool cigarettes, a product known to be favored by African-Americans, and beer to attract the homeless, many of whom are alcoholics, she said.

No one could offer an explanation why the NOPD chose to use Boston Baked Beans as part of the sting.

“They’re going after a certain class of people to encourage them to commit petty crimes in order to get those people out of the general population,” Esman said. “What they’re doing, essentially, is prosecuting people for being hungry, poor and homeless. But you can’t arrest someone for being hungry, poor and homeless. So they said, ‘We’ll make them break the law.’ You create temptation and then punish them for being tempted. Not only is it bad police work of questionable lega