Are "Bait Cars" Reducing Colorado Auto Thefts?

Our sophomore year in college, my roommate and I decided to spend spring break on a beach in south Texas. One balmy night at our hotel, the guy interested in my roommate spotted a twelve-pack in the middle of the street. At twenty, we were so desperate for alcohol it made total sense that a case of beer would mysteriously appear in the middle of a busy road.

Leery but thirsty, my roommate followed the guy as he ventured off to pick up the beer. Within seconds, three cop cars surrounded my terrified, never-even-been-grounded roommate and slapped her with a minor-in-possession ticket.

Since 2009, the Metropolitan Auto Task Force, a coalition of police departments across the six-county Denver metro that aims to prevent auto theft, has employed a similar method to nab car thieves. Using the makes and models of the top ten cars stolen in Colorado....

...undercover police park “bait cars” in neighborhoods and wait for someone to bite, according to Mike Becker, division chief of the Lakewood Police Department and former commander of the Metropolitan Auto Task Force.

If that sounds like entrapment, it isn't.

“It's not enough that police set up bait for someone to commit a crime of any sort” to be considered entrapment, explains Dan Recht, a longtime Denver criminal defense attorney. “It requires that the police induce a particular person to commit the crime and that that particular person would not have even conceived of engaging in such conduct but for the inducement by the police.

"Entrapment requires, in essence, that the police have a relationship with the person that they then induce to commit a crime.”

Still, Recht wonders if techniques like bait cars are the best use of resources.

In 2015, the Metropolitan Auto Task Force investigated 498 auto-theft cases, which resulted in 334 arrests, Becker says. That's of the 4,005 car thefts reported in Denver alone that year, or about 77 a week. Becker won't divulge how many of last year's cases came from bait cars, saying only, “Sometimes it is not effective, sometimes it is effective.”

Across the state, auto theft increased by about 30 percent from 2014 to 2015, and as the largest city in the state, it's no surprise that Denver ranks No. 1.

Unassuming in appearance, bait cars are parked in neighborhoods experiencing a spike in auto theft, which, Becker admits, are often poor neighborhoods. “Socioeconomics does have to do with it,” he says. But the task force tries to avoid creating a dangerous situation. Undercover officers decide if and when to intervene and can control the car's speed. Becker says police never chase bait cars. 

He wouldn't say how or how closely bait cars are monitored (he didn't want to divulge clues to thieves) except to say that police know when one is taken.

Becker stresses that bait cars are just one of the task force's methods. It also relies on automated license-plate readers, which read plates and alert officers to those of missing cars; VIN etching or the long number etched into a car's windshield or window that makes reselling a stolen car difficult; and educational efforts that warn residents about leaving their cars unattended while warming them in the winter or cooling them in the summer. 

Created by the legislature in 2003, the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority provides law enforcement agencies with grant money to fund auto-theft prevention efforts. According to its Assessment of Motor Vehicle Thefts in Colorado 2015 report, 14,859 motor vehicles were stolen in Colorado last year, compared to 11,459 in 2014. Of those stolen, 12,211 were recovered, but only 5,334 included a theft address when entered into a database monitored by various police agencies across the state. 

The report continues: “Therefore, 56 percent of recovery records statewide do not include a recovery address – a mandatory entry in the 'locate vehicle' mask of [Colorado Crime Information Center].... Agencies are bypassing the 'locate vehicle' screen and either clearing or deleting the vehicle entry." 

After my roommate got over the shell shock of her first interaction with police, she made her way back to our hotel room. We toasted her first ticket with ice-cold rum and Cokes.