Isenberg at the  scene of the sting.
Isenberg at the scene of the sting.
Daniel Kramer

Tempting Teens

The driver parks his sedan across the street from Burbank Middle School, opens the door, and staggers out. He looks drunk, too drunk to realize he left the car running as he stumbles down Bauman Street just north of Loop 610.

At the same time, two kids are walking and they spot the car. They size up the situation: intoxicated driver, running car. It's too interesting to pass up. They cross the street, peer inside the open window and spot the gin bottle on the front passenger seat. One of the teens grabs the bottle, hands it to his friend, and they cross the street again, into a field full of tall grass and weeds, where they toss the bottle. They head back to the sidewalk and continue on their way.

That's when the patrol car appears and the officers hop out to arrest the boys. Their partners, tucked away in a surveillance van, were watching the entire time. They know just where to be; the driver isn't drunk. He's just a decoy.

Then this sting program picks up another statistic -- two boys charged with burglary of a car for taking a gin bottle -- to help justify a half-million-dollar annual grant.

For ten years, Houston police in the North Patrol Division have run this sting operation in areas with high rates of auto thefts and burglaries of motor vehicles (BMVs), says Lieutenant Anthony Kivela. It takes seven to 15 officers to pull it off, chewing up enough man-hours and grant money that they only run the sting a few months at a time. The money comes from a $500,000 Juvenile Accountability Court Program awarded to the mayor's anti-gang office and funneled to the city's 11 police patrol divisions. Each division decides how to use the funds, with review and approval from the anti-gang office and the district attorney's office.

"What we're doing is targeting those people who commit crimes of opportunity in high-crime areas," Kivela says. He says he likes this sting because it gives a potential criminal the choice to just walk away from the bait, be it a liquor bottle, a purse -- or the car itself.

Randall Kallinen, an attorney on the board of the Houston ACLU, believes it comes close to entrapment.

"It seems like it's going just a little bit too far," he says. "I think you might be creating criminals out of people who are not criminals."

He wonders if the police aren't giving their targets too much opportunity to commit a crime, especially by creating a situation that is rare in everyday life. After all, he wonders, how often does a person encounter an unoccupied car that is parked and running, with the windows rolled down and something valuable inside?

Kallinen said he wouldn't have a problem if the police parked the car, turned the engine off and rolled up the windows, thus creating a much more realistic situation.

Marc Isenberg, the attorney defending one of the boys busted for stealing the gin bottle, finds the sting a ridiculous waste of time and money.

When he was appointed to the case, Isenberg figured it was just a routine theft. But when he saw the police surveillance tape -- he says the police in the van voiced disappointment that the boys didn't steal the car -- he nearly flipped.

"I think they're looking for the worst in people and they want to try to grab the weakest that they can," Isenberg says.

Isenberg's client, who Kivela says was on probation for burglary, is due in juvenile court August 20. Isenberg doesn't deny his client took the gin, but if he goes to trial, he says he'll use what is known as a defense of necessity. It is based on a statute that allows certain criminal acts if the defendant believes the conduct is necessary to avoid imminent harm. Like removing a bottle of gin from a drunk driver's car after the driver stumbles away.

If convicted, the 14-year-old could conceivably face incarceration in a state youth facility until he turns 21, although the typical stay is about nine months. A juvenile with no prior record would likely be subjected to stringent probation or a term of a few months in a local youth facility or boot camp for about two to four months.

Chris Moore, the DA's chief juvenile prosecutor, was asked why she thought this case was important enough to prosecute. She said the law bars her from commenting on any juvenile case, although Kivela defended the case as good police work that serves the public.

But Isenberg believes the cops could better serve the public by increasing regular patrols, telling officers to be aware of anyone who appears to be an underage driver, and punching those license plate numbers into their computers to see if they're stolen.

"I just don't think they need to encourage kids to steal cars," he says.

Paula Parshall, president of the area's "superneighborhood" coalition, says the kids in the area hardly need encouragement. She says the community in general supports the police efforts to crack down on crime.

Parshall has lived in the area all her life, and says she's seen the effects of increased gang presence. The same kids who steal cars are the same kids who vandalize property and commit other crimes, she says.

"This helps in the process of trying to clean up our neighborhood," she says of the sting. "We're all in favor of it."

Catherine Burnett, law professor and associate dean of the South Texas College of Law, says there appears to be nothing illegal or unethical about the sting, although it can raise some troubling questions.

"Nothing constitutionally handcuffs the police to only be reactive," she says. "Crime prevention is a valid goal of policing activity as well, not merely crime detection."

Burnett, however, says society as a whole may be skeptical when it comes to the discretion involved in police actions like stings.

"We as a society have never been... totally comfortable with too much discretion in the hands of the folks who police us," she says.


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