Patterico's Pontifications


Neighborhood Watch-ers Beware

Filed under: Crime — DRJ @ 1:42 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

I’m a strong supporter of law enforcement but this week the Austin Police Department [EDIT: or possibly the Travis County DA] is not making my day:

“The Honda [with the windows rolled down and the keys in the ignition] was parked near the corner of Joe Sayers Avenue and Houston Street in the Brentwood neighborhood in North Austin. [Mark Douglas] Ledford said he knocked on his neighbors’ doors trying to find the owner, but no one knew anything about the car.

He figured it had been stolen and left there, so he called the police. According to police records, two officers arrived at 5:27 p.m. but were gone within seven minutes.

“I told them, ‘Isn’t it strange that someone parked their car there with the windows down and the keys in it?’ ” Ledford said. “Their answer was, ‘It’s parked legally. What’s the problem?’ It seemed suspicious to me, but the police were telling me they don’t care.”

However, the officers held back a crucial detail: The police had actually left the car there themselves.”

The car was a bait vehicle “stocked with an alarm, surveillance equipment and a tracking system.” The bait car program has been in use in Austin since at least 2007.

After three days, Ledford and his then-girlfriend Asia Ward decided to investigate. They searched the car — he used gloves to protect what he thought was a crime scene — and tried to jimmy the jammed trunk lock with a screwdriver. Within minutes, they were detained by police and now face trial for auto burglary. The arrest “affidavit did not mention Ledford’s previous call to police or that the car was parked near his house.”

Ledford and Ward say they refused an offer of deferred prosecution that would “waive any penalties as long as they sign a confession and don’t commit a crime for a year,” saying they would not confess to a crime they didn’t commit.

Maybe this was a crime of opportunity but I suspect it will be hard to convince a jury.


47 Responses to “Neighborhood Watch-ers Beware”

  1. I think it’s more the DA’s office that’s creepy and fascist more than the police in this case. The DA’s office is pro-actively damaging esteem for the police force. That’s dumb to do that because police serve a very important function and their efforts are greatly abetted by a cooperative and supportive citizenry.

    happyfeet (c75712)

  2. That’s a fair point, happyfeet, and I’ll add that to the post. But the couple wasn’t arrested until 16 days after they were initially detained so someone had time to investigate and think twice. Maybe the evidence will show there’s another side to this story but this version doesn’t look good for the authorities.

    DRJ (6f3f43)

  3. Yeah, it feels like we’re missing a few pieces of the puzzle here. As it is right now, it doesn’t look to hot for the Austin PD, but that could change.

    KingShamus (4fabb2)

  4. OMG, I’m moving to Travis County (Austin proper) to be closer to my grandson. I’ll be sure and not investigate any “suspicious” empty vehicles with keys in them.

    GM Roper (d53336)

  5. Sorry to disagree, DRJ. One thing I have been teaching my daughter since she was old enough to understand, “Don’t touch what is not yours”. Not even pick up a penny from the sidewalk.

    nk (a0200f)

  6. On the other hand, Travis County is the home of the former DA Ronnie Earle “Ethics Speaker” at the Netroots Nutroots Nation in July of last year! And Austin is considered by many to be Moscow on the Colorado River because of the HUGE leftish influences.

    GM Roper (d53336)

  7. You’re a big city guy, nk. Those of us in small towns are our brother’s keepers. It looks like Austin is somewhere in between.

    DRJ (6f3f43)

  8. There is something here not coming out yet. No self-respecting car thief would go for a fat target like that unless it was a kid.

    MIke K (2cf494)

  9. Ok, who will be the first to shout entrapment?

    nk who had to take two years of statistics (a0200f)

  10. I hate cookies.

    nk (a0200f)

  11. …tried to jimmy the jammed trunk lock with a screwdriver.

    Jury trial – if it ever gets that far.

    The keys were in the ignition but they didn’t steal the car (hence no auto theft charge) even though that would be the easiest thing to do.

    They just attempted to force the ‘jammed’ trunk, which was likely specially locked to secure the surveillance gear. Presumably they attempted to unlock the trunk using the ignition key and failed. It also appears they failed to gain access and their ‘burglary’ was only an unsuccessful attempt to enter the trunk.

    Anyone asked POTUS about this one?

    HappyFourth (211bbb)

  12. Texas has the MPC definition of burglary, like Illinois, and any “entry” with the intent to commit a felony or theft is burglary.

    nk (a0200f)

  13. I dunno, nk. Isn’t one’s intent an element of a crime? It doesn’t appear to me that Ledford and his girlfriend intended to commit a crime. Of course, that’s just from the story in the post, maybe there’s more to this.

    But assume the story is correct. Ledford called the police about a public nuisance (car parked illegally), and the police didn’t take any steps to abate it. After a reasonable period of time, Ledford attempted on his own to determine the owner of the car. The police busted him, and they can’t even establish that his intention was to remove anything from the car.

    At best, they could get him for vandalism. But even that would be a stretch.

    Steverino (69d941)

  14. And there is a way to use self-help to abate a public nuisance like this one. You call all your neighbors, and each drops ten dollars into a hat, and then you call a tow-truck, who calls the police, and the thing is towed into the city pound.

    nk (a0200f)

  15. Comment by Steverino — 7/26/2009 @ 3:01 pm


    nk (a0200f)

  16. Maybe the cops wanted to be on this show.

    kaf (525681)

  17. I agree with nk. If nothing else, at least call the police first and say “look, this car’s been here in this weird state for three days now, and it’s starting to freak out the people in our neighborhood. Either come deal with it or we will”… at which point the cops probably say, “look, it’s there for a reason – just trust us.” But to just hop right into the damn thing and start fiddlin’ around seems ill-advised.

    Leviticus (ebc85b)

  18. I’ve seen this sting on TV before.
    They have equipment in the trunk that disables the car when the PD rolls up on it.
    The under dash cam that shows the thief’s reaction is priceless, albeit a little sad… the car dies and they are trying to restart it, and then the doors are ripped open by the PD and “say hello to the pavement” happens. Arguing that the pavement is about 140F degrees is fruitless.
    I heartily recommend that summertime car thieves in the southwest caught up in this type of sting quickly ditch any idea of restarting the car and instead spend their time wisely by getting out and running for it into the nearest shade and then lying prone and submissive there.

    SteveG (97b6b9)

  19. Something is not right on this story. I have worked on numerous ops of this nature. Never is a car left in the same location for 3 days. If you dont get a hit at the location withing a short time, it is unproductive and you move to a new location. Also it’s unrealistic to think the PD would be paying the overtime necessary to sit on the car for 3 days in the same spot. Something is not passing the smell test here.

    Stan Switek (b2907a)

  20. OT, so sorry. A guy I knew back in New York in the 80s came out of a Queens mall to find his car missing. Searched high and low but it was gone. Fast forward 3 weeks. He’s back at the mall and there it is. Covered in dirt and dust. He convinced himself that the “thief” had returned it to the exact same parking spot out of guilt, general grime notwithstanding. He was a nice guy, just not too bright.

    Gazzer (409de8)

  21. That would make a great blonde joke, Gazzer.

    DRJ (6f3f43)

  22. I could give a pass on opening the car, looking on the visor and in the glovebox, places the registration is likely to be, but trying to jimmy the trunk is a step too far. As for towing, if it was actually parked legally, on what basis would it be towed?

    I am somewhat surprised that the cops just didn’t tell the guy after the initial call and ask him to stay quiet. Either that or move the car somewhere else.

    Soronel Haetir (2a5236)

  23. Some commenters here appear to not have read to story before commenting on the facts as given.

    The couple did report the vehicle to the police. They did not just get in and beging fooling around with it. The police came by and told the couple it was no big deal, it was parked legally, and they just left and did nothing about it.

    The guy, who says he loves to read crime stories, says he saw a bikini top in the back seat, some rope, men’s boots, ect… So he begins to think maybe some girl is in the trunk. He also learns the trunk is jammed, furthering his suspisions. That is why he goes into the trunk. Everything he did seems perfectly logical and what a reasonably prudent person might do under similar circumstances.

    Sorry to repeat the whole story here but it is exasperating to read comments with questions or concerns that are answered if they just read about what they are commenting or judging so readily.

    Brett (6186c3)

  24. You know everytime I see a strange car in front of my house I try to jimmy open the trunk with a screw driver. Just in case.

    WTF? These people are either idiots or worse.

    Its because there are always candy wrapers, panties and empty beer bottles in these cars and you know there could be an entire Lithuanian bowling league locked up in the trunk.

    Thomas Jackson (8ffd46)

  25. It seems the danger of citizens potentially being harmed by this outweighs the attempt to capture car thieves: young kids could be the ones stealing the car and end up injuring someone, if not themselves; a druggie or inebriated person could get behind the wheel and do untold damage before the police stop them. There is no assurance that the police would arrive at the scene before the driver took off in the car.

    I’m guessing Mr. Ledford’s comment at the end of the article speaks for a lot of the Austin citizens. Hopefully the Austin PD will take note.

    “To hell with being a concerned citizen,” Ledford said. “You hear stories of someone getting mugged and no one gets involved. Now I see why.”

    Dana (57e332)

  26. Lots of unanswered questions here. Is this a well traveled road where lots of people park a car to walk over to the corner store. It is a quite neighborhood where very few unfamiliar cars drive by unless they live there (ie, a cul de sac). If it is an out of the way neighborhood, like where I live, and an unfamiliar car is parked for 3 days in front of my house w/ the keys in it then YES, I investigate.

    I agree that getting out a screw driver to pry open the trunk is going a bit far but if he begins to get concerned that maybe someone was left in the trunk and unconcious, dying or dead I can see why he did it.

    I once found a dog dying in a car from the heat. I got it out. Several other people had ignored it. It wasn’t their problem.

    Brett (6186c3)

  27. If the police told me not to worry about it, there’s no way I would even think of touching it.

    Maybe I have watched too many episodes of “Cops” and “Bait Car”.

    PatAZ (9d1bb3)

  28. I always pry open car trunks, you never know if the Westminster Kennel club may have been locked up. You know in NYC hundreds will ignore a woman being murdered on the street,but I have seen hundreds of ins6tances of concerned young men prying off hubcaps, breaking open trunks and even searching through glove compartments in a humane attempt to make sure that there are no dogs trapped, who might otherwise strave to death. Those teacup pets just love to hide in glove compartments.

    And the funny thing was none of these wonderful young scholars ever thought of knocking on the door of the house the car was parked in front of to see if the home’s occupants knew who owned the car.

    I wonder why that happened?

    Thomas Jackson (8ffd46)

  29. I know an attorney who put his cocker spaniel in the trunk when he took him out in the car, but he’s kind of an eccentric guy.

    DRJ (6f3f43)

  30. I have kids. If someone left a car outside my house with the keys in it, I would want to do something about it. At a minimum, I would remove the keys and leave a note.

    This is an awesome police program, and Austin really needs it, but if they are really leaving cars for 3 days straight they are doing it wrong.

    Why jimmy the trunk? Well, if the surveillance equipment is there, there’s a real chance subtle noises and mechanical vibrations came from the trunk when the car was entered. That + the rope and bikini top may have had him scared something needed to be done.

    Juan (bd4b30)

  31. I think this is a clear case of what sometimes is classified as vigilantism. On the surface it appears a good hearted citizen did his best to rouse the proper authorities, and because they refused to act in a reasonable way he took matters into his own hands. This is always a danger when proper authorities refuse to act responsibly.

    Now, the proper action would have been for the police to inform the good samaritan that the abandoned car was a police trap. The fact the DA is trying to prosecute is absurdly heavy handed and in a just society should put the DA at risk for violating the public trust. But we know how hard it is to sue the police or DA for overstepping their bounds, so that’s out.

    With any luck the Austin DA is an elective office and this whole mess will come back to bite ’em in the ass.

    Brad (259816)

  32. DRJ

    Its disturbing that they called the police

    Its equally disturbing that they jimmeyed the car

    This is one of those how stupid can we get episodes.

    I agree with the bait car concept, we need more of them, they are a tried and proven law enforcement method

    EricPWJohnson (a7d970)

  33. I agree with the bait car concept, we need more of them, they are a tried and proven law enforcement method

    In what way , that they can entice people with the bait? Seems a sort of circular argument.

    Doesn’t anyone here have a problem with the cops actually tempting people to commit crime? I am not a lawyer and the word ‘entrapment’ always provokes angles on the head of a pin type debates about a specific tactics legality, but seriously, don’t Austin cops have anything better to do than try to tempt marginal people to break the law?

    hortense (aka horace) (411ef0)

  34. Seems to me if the cops were serious about dealing with major auto theft — which I understand is mostly done by quasi-professional ‘rings’ — they would park high-value cars in marginal areas, or areas of previous car-theft activity. They would lock those cars –without the keys in them — just to make sure they weren’t obvious bait. I doubt the professional car thief, as opposed to your teenage joyrider, is going to fall for one of these bait cars. Probably is a good way to pad arrest and conviction rates though.

    hortense (aka horace) (411ef0)

  35. This is stupid on so many levels. (Or from so many angles, as Hortense’s pin might say.)

    If you leave the car windows open and the keys in the ignition, you are no longer trolling for the people who are really out there stealing cars. Now you’re trolling at a much lower level, for any teenager who might walk by and be tempted. This is like trying to poison squirrels by putting the bait on the ground where every stray dog and cat in the neighborhood can get to it.

    Additionally, leaving a car for 3 days with the windows down and the keys in it plainly sends a message that something is very wrong. Obviously, after 3 days, we can conclude that this couple lives in a pretty respectable and quiet neighborhood. Any car left in that state on my street would cause considerable comment and concern.

    Worst of all, it is not as if the police (or the DA) seriously believe that they have managed to snare someone who is a danger to their community or the source of any of the current crime in Austin. They’re just happy that they can chalk up a win in the little box. Who cares whether the REAL criminals are the ones in jail or not, as long as they keep busy and keep their jobs?

    Oh, and the reason the windows were left open? It’s because on top of it all, they’re cheap. They didn’t want to take the cost of a broken window out of their budget if the car had been stolen by a *real* car thief.

    Gesundheit (47b0b8)

  36. Gesundheit, I certainly don’t mind that they are cheap! That’s great thinking on their part.

    Though it’s possible thieves already knew this was a bait car because of the way it was left. That car double parked on 6th street near the ARCH would have been gone in 3 minutes, but in front of Beaver’s house?

    They should sit the car in the tire tracks of that last car that was stolen.

    This would make a good entrapment hypo with a little tweaking.

    Juan (bd4b30)

  37. Trust me, if there were a body in the trunk for three days in Austin in July you would not need a screw driver to know it.
    That said this story seems a little off. I can not see a police force leaving a bait car in place for three days. I have worked with both local cops and the state stolen car task force in my state on this kind of operation and most lasted a few hours at most. Sounds like they were trying to tempt a particular party who was not biting this week. Sort of like hanging a big fat minnow on a hook in front of that lunker bass that’s just not having it right now.

    Have Blue (854a6e)

  38. Have Blue, what’s amusing about that idea is that the main deterrent to criminals on that street was probably this concerned and proactive citizen.

    The target of the bait car (a reasonable guess on your part) probably knew this neighbor was not a slouch. And if he’s a professional car thief, he probably knew all about the bait car program.

    But is it possible they really left the car out there? I thought they had a bunch of cops in waiting near the scene when they did this.

    Juan (bd4b30)

  39. #28 – Thomas Jackson

    As Brett said in #23, the article answers:

    “Ledford said he knocked on his neighbors’ doors trying to find the owner, but no one knew anything about the car.”

    jim2 (a9ab88)

  40. Stupid for the DA to actually go through with the prosecution attempt, but perhaps stupider for these people to try to jimmy open the trunk when police told them it was parked there legally. I’m all in favor of neighborhood watches, but this is a bit nosy and intrusive into somebody else’s property.

    HowdySir (0d70bb)

  41. Lesson: Always mind your own business.

    The Emperor (1b037c)

  42. The article notes that they have caught 13 year olds. So the APD knows they are letting kids get behind the wheel. I hope their disabling equipment gets activated instantly and that it never fails, because that’s really quite a risk they are taking.

    This neighbor waited a LONG time to ‘invade’ this car. No one leaves a car open with the keys in it for 3 days. That’s just absurd. It wasn’t anyone’s property… it was either a crime scene or litter. This man would obviously not ‘commit this crime’ but for the behavior of the cops.

    Juan (bd4b30)

  43. One other possibility in response to the disabling equipment comments. I could see not disabling some bait cars to see where they are taken and so hopefully find the chop shop. I would expect that to require far less equipment than the normal bait car setup though.

    I can also see why the cops wouldn’t want to do this in a more reasonable location like a mall parking lot. Someone might take the keys and leave them with the mall info desk or something else annoying to the cops.

    Soronel Haetir (2a5236)

  44. I’m curious to know what Austin’s abandonment statutes say. Because this probably qualifies.

    Jimmying the trunk was stupid and as others have pointed out, smells a bit. But the rest is absurdity. Don’t the police have better things to do with their time then try to tempt people into breaking the law so they can pad their arrest statistics?

    tim maguire (4a98f0)

  45. #39


    Does it seem reasonable to you that having been told by the police to ignore the car this individual took it upon himself to pry open the trunk of the car? Now granted perhaps this man was a trifle slow on the uptake, but if he really thought someone was locked in the trunk don’t you think he might have called the police first?

    I have noticed some people seem to feel the use of bait cars should be limited to “marginal” neighborhoods. Why? It seems to me that thieves go to where the nice cars are. I would bet insurance companies realize that there are better cars in good areas than marginal ones. I bet thieves know this as well.

    Although the courts have ruled against the use of entrapment I can certainly see where it should bbe legal and useful, especially in regard to people occupying positions of public trust and authority. Abscam should be a regular government program.

    Thomas Jackson (8ffd46)

  46. Sec. 545.404. UNATTENDED MOTOR VEHICLE. An operator may not leave the vehicle unattended without:

    (1) stopping the engine;

    (2) locking the ignition;

    (3) removing the key from the ignition;

    (4) setting the parking brake effectively; and

    (5) if standing on a grade, turning the front wheels to the curb or side of the highway.

    The prosecutors argument violates the “reasonable person standard”.

    A car sitting for three days with keys in it, a reasonable person may assume that it was abandoned, or at the least, misplaced.

    Thus, the fact that it was under surveillance and tracked by gps and all that becomes moot, because a “reasonable person” would believe that it was abandoned.

    Their argument is illogical because under the law a car parked with the keys in the ignition with no one around is illegal. Therefore a reasonable person would then have to assume that it was under surveillance by the police because that would be the only way, the only way, it could have been parked legally. Thus, if a person was to deduce that it was under police surveillance as that is the only way it could have been parked legally with the keys in the ignition, why then would any reasonable person try to break into the trunk. That is illogical.

    The car is not legally parked.

    If the car is legally parked with keys in the ignition, then a reasonable person must be able to assume that it is under police surveillance, and a reasonable person would not break into the trunk if they knew it was under surveillance.

    Is there any other way the car could be legally parked with keys in the ignition?

    So, therefore, as a reasonable person would assume the car was abandoned, or at the least misplaced, the finder of the property has the right of possession until the true owner is found.

    In this case, the defendants took possession and control of misplaced or abandoned property. As possessors of such property, it is not illegal for them to attempt to break open the trunk. There is no law against breaking open the trunk of a car you have possession of.

    In no instance, in my opinion, did these people break any law.

    notguilty (ed8815)

  47. #45 – Thomas Jackson

    I was simply pointing out that your question was answered in the article itself.

    I have no real position on your next question. However, I would like to note that air-tight containers and wrappings do exist. Also, there are hazardous materials that I sure would not like parked indefinitely practically in front of my house, right where my neighborhood’s children play.

    If the police won’t help and days go by, what do citizens do? Maybe not what they did, but they at least tried to do SOMEthing. Even if they found nothing but luggage, maybe it would have contributed to a missing person case.

    personally, I think their chances in winning a wrongful prosecution type case are better than the police’s chances in convicting them.

    jim2 (6482d8)

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