People demand all the time that Seattle “get tough” on homeless street camping and its perceived contribution to low-level crime. But just what a minefield that can be was put on vivid display last week in a city courtroom.
Consider, as a jury did, the case of Jolene Paris.
Back in the summer of 2018, Paris was hanging around near a Goodwill outlet store, on Sixth Avenue South in Sodo. It’s a regular gathering spot for the homeless and the near-homeless, as it’s a liquidation center where they offer stuff in bulk that didn’t sell at a regular Goodwill. (“Shoes — $1.19 per pound. All sales final.”)
Paris noticed a silver road bicycle, an old Sirrus Pro model, leaning against a tree in the dirt near some shrubs. According to her testimony, she thought it odd someone had left a bike there, unlocked and unattended, in this high-crime neighborhood. So she started wheeling it around the Goodwill parking lot, asking if it belonged to anyone.
It did belong to someone – the Seattle Police Department.
The cops had placed the bike there three hours earlier, as bait.
“The mission of this operation is to focus on and to enforce property crimes,” the police plan presented in court says. “Today we will have bait bicycles deployed in the target area, which statistically has a very high bicycle theft rate, in addition to a high car prowl rate.”
Paris was arrested and charged with theft, though it was just the misdemeanor variety because the bait-bike was valued at only $300.
Fast forward more than a year. Surprisingly, Paris’ case went all the way to trial.
The city’s case was pretty simple: Yes, we placed the bike there. Sure, maybe we made it look inviting. But she took it. Case closed.
“The defendant, through her own free will, saw and took the bicycle. Seattle Police did not induce or lure the defendant into taking the bike,” city prosecutors argued in briefs.
Incredibly the city listed six police officers as witnesses to make this case in the trial (there were 12 officers total deployed for the bike-bait operation, which included other arrests).
The defense called the whole thing medieval.
“This was a sting operation that targeted homeless people,” defense attorney Brandon Davis argued in one pretrial brief. “It is one of the poorest areas in the city. SPD placed this bicycle near a Goodwill, a store that serves people with low incomes, and left the bike unlocked. Prosecution of such a person is befitting of Dickensian London, not 21st century Seattle.”
The city countered that it solely targeted the property crime that is rampant in Sodo. Paris’ financial condition is irrelevant, the city argued.
My own take, having visited the spot of the arrest: What kind of a lame sting involves leaving a bike in the shrubs?
Even the police’s own report describes how it went down like this: “The undercover officer walked away from the location and left the bicycle unsecured. The bicycle was left on the north side of the sidewalk near some shrubs and leaning against a tree, on the south of the business … which is a Goodwill.”
I mean if I saw a bike like that, I sure might wonder why it was there. Was it abandoned? At a minimum, if you’re going to set a trap, shouldn’t you lock the bike with a cable to make sure you’re catching a real bike thief?
Some other police forces that have left stuff lying around as theft bait like this have gotten sued, because later it turned out it was picked up by good Samaritans.
New York City ran a scheme called “Operation Lucky Bag,” in which they’d plant a purse or bag with money or valuables on a public bench, and then lie in wait for someone to take it. In 2014 the city paid a $50,000 settlement to three people who insisted they had only been looking for a phone number inside the bag to find out who owned the purses.
In this case, Paris, 41, repeated at trial what she told police on video the day of her arrest – that she saw the bike in the dirt unlocked and so rolled it through the Goodwill parking lot to find out who owned it. Her behavior – mainly that she didn’t bother to leave the scene of the alleged crime — was “more in line with a Good Samaritan than a thief,” her attorney argued.
You can be the jury, and decide what you think. It only took the real jury about 30 minutes to make up its mind: Not guilty.
Another verdict: Seattle has a real problem with property crime. But surely police can come up with better ways to go after it than staking out unlocked bicycles at Goodwill.
“There are certain charges that are just plain wrong to prosecute,” Davis, the defense attorney, summed up to the court. “This is thousands of dollars to create, and prosecute, a theft charge. SPD states they are concerned about property crimes in Sodo, and presumably this is because they are concerned with victims of property crime. The city failed those victims by directing their resources to this case.”