On April Fool’s Day, 2014, the Osceola County Sheriff set up a sting with the stated purpose of stopping and deterring thievery along a portion of the US 192 corridor in Kissimmee, Florida. The Sheriff stated there had been a recent spike in thefts in public places along the tourist strip. There are a number of hotels, tourist attractions, outlet stores, and bus stops along the area targeted. The Sheriff targeted two bus stops and arrested ten persons. I represent eight of them pro bono.
A team of deputies took a mountain bike, a purse or bag, a laptop, a tablet, and $350.00 and placed it unlocked and unattended at the bus stop. The bus stops have a rack that holds two bikes and to which the bike may be locked. This rack was not utilized by the deputies. The bike appeared to be fairly new and expensive, as did the purse or bag. The laptop and the tablet were placed in the opened purse. $350.00 was placed in a pocket of the purse in such a manner as to be hanging out of the pocket and easily visible. One of those arrested stated that “if a slight wind had come along, it would have blown the money all over.” The deputies then set themselves up with a camera across the street and watched to see what happened.
The area in which this sting was set up is frequented by many homeless people, many people who may be living in a hotel but are struggling to make ends meet, and the occasional tourist. I have no doubt that many thefts occur in this area, just like they do everywhere, and efforts by law enforcement to reduce them and catch the perpetrators should be commended. However, stings conducted in the manner in which this one was do not solve the problem. Stings conducted in this manner cost the people of the county more in terms of dollars spent than the operation was worth. The sting took seven deputies from patrolling the streets for approximately ten hours, including a sergeant/supervisor. And then there are the jail personnel needed to book, house, and feed them, and the prosecutors, public defenders, clerks, and judges needed to work them through the court system.
This sting struck at people vulnerable to temptation, people who are not “natural” thieves. Only one of them has any prior criminal history involving theft, so it cannot be said as a matter of law that they were predisposed to the theft. The people who were finally arrested were not out that day looking for something to steal. They happened upon what appeared to be a miracle, something that would give them temporary respite from their hunger, their homelessness, and that would get them through a few days. You could compare them to Jean Valjean from the book Les Misérables, who stole a loaf of bread to feed his child, not thinking it would cost him a lifetime of misery. They saw an unattended and unlocked bicycle and a purse with $350.00 hanging out of it. They thought it had been abandoned, just like a $5 bill one might find on the ground. They were knocked down to the ground and handcuffed before they even had a chance to turn it in and be a good citizen.
Not one of them touched the laptop or tablet, nor did any one of them take the bike or the purse. If the goal of the Sheriff was to stop thefts in the area, particularly of property, how did this sting help? Anyone who leaves a relatively new mountain bike unattended and unchained at a bus stop, or an open purse with a laptop, tablet, and $350.00 hanging out of it, is inviting a thief to steal it. I am not saying such a victim of theft deserves it, or that a person should take property the person knows doesn’t belong to him or her, but an owner has a duty to secure the property and take away the open invitation.
The persons arrested by the deputies in this sting are victims, too. All of them are poor, some are homeless, and most are without jobs. When the deputies arrested them, they had to spend money to bond out, a few lost the places they were living in, they had to take time and find transportation to see attorneys and appear in court, and now they may have criminal records, for which no one will ever forgive them. If convicted, they could lose their jobs or not be able to get one, they could lose the right to vote, own a firearm, or have certain licenses, and their chances of moving forward and becoming successful are diminished. They will have to pay fines, court costs, probation costs, and do community service, all of which puts them in a worse place than they were before and makes them more dependent on government services. If they are not convicted, and the charges are dropped, the matter still remains on their history and anyone who looks at it (potential employers and apartment managers) won’t care that the charges were dropped. In addition, their mug shots are out there on the internet. They will never get this part of their lives back.
Actions of this type that are created by law enforcement, even if later found to be lawful, need to be challenged. The accused of this sting do not have the means to hire representation. They needed someone to help them exercise their rights in court. They came to me and asked me to help them and I decided I could and would. I like challenges like this. These people do not deserve to be branded for life for an indiscretion that they were led into committing by law enforcement. Although this case has attracted some media attention, the accused are not the type of people who elicit much sympathy. I fear we let too many cases such as this slip through and the government wins when it should not.