The Philadelphia Police have stepped up efforts to try and stop high bike theft rates in the city. The Philadelphia Inquirer today reported the new tactics police are using to try and find suspected bike thieves, but the one that raises concern is the so-called “sting operation.” These operations not only have the potential to ensnare innocent people, they are also ineffectual and potentially a waste of resources. In this scenario, the police place an unlocked bike on the street and wait to see if someone takes it. They then arrest the anyone who takes it. Sounds simple enough. Here’s the problem — a person is guilty of Theft by Unlawful Taking in Pennsylvania if he or she “unlawfully takes or exercises unlawful control over movable property of another with intent to deprive him thereof.” In other words, the property needs to belong to someone and the person taking the property must intend to deprive that other person of it.
People usually lock up their bikes in a crowded city. The lock deters thieves and lets others know someone owns it. The police are not locking these bikes making it unclear whether anyone owns them. Someone could innocently believe that the bike was abandoned. If the bike is abandoned, then no one owns it and taking it is not theft.
For an unlocked bike, the condition of it might give some clues on whether it’s actually abandoned, meaning, if it’s brand new and unlocked it’s not likely to be abandoned. But if the bike is a little older, resting on its side on the street, and not locked, it might look abandoned to a passerby. There is a chance for an innocent person to take the bike without any criminal intent. That same person, if they knew the bike belonged to someone, would not take it. Of course, once you’re arrested and charged it is very difficult to convince anyone that you wouldn’t have taken it if you knew the bike belonged to someone. The police will come into court and say that they were conducting a surveillance for possible bike thieves, set up an unlocked bike, and waited for the thief to appear. Anyone arrested is likely to lose even if they were honestly mistaken about the bike not belonging to anyone.
This scenario also raises possible entrapment concerns, but those claims seldom win. Entrapment requires either “a false representation designed to induce the belief that such conduct is not prohibited” or “a method of persuasion or inducement that creates a substantial risk that the crime will be committed by individuals not already inclined to commit the crime.” The unlocked bike could fit within the first part of the definition but it is unlikely to fit into the second part. I also do not think that leaving it unlocked is really a “false representation” about whether it is ok to take the bike. There still is a concern over the bike appearing abandoned though.
I understand that bike theft is a problem, it’s a pain, and there should be a way to stop it. I am not saying that it is ok for people to have their bikes taken, even if they leave them unlocked. But, I do not think this program is the best way to do it. Besides the problems with possibly arresting innocent people, this operation also requires resources. I am not sure how many officers the department is dedicating to these “sting operations” but they need at least one or two officer observing the bike and likely a few others as back up to stop the person as they take the bike. That’s at least 2 to 4 cops that could be used somewhere else, actually keeping people safe. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, there should be a requirement for bikes to be equipped with a small license plate like a car. Then people could report the bike stolen and police could track them easier. This system would also have the added bonus of making it easier to identify reckless bikers and give them tickets and to prevent them from committing hit and runs, which do happen occasionally. The plate requirement should not be expensive or burdensome for bikers because we do want to encourage people to bike in the city. I can’t imagine it would be too expensive though. In fact, Berkeley, CA already does it. Rather than performing these elaborate sting operations, why not just make it easy and put plates on them? It avoids many problems, saves some resources, could help cut down on bike thefts, and on reckless biking.