Arundel sticker program planned But ACLU says idea to stop car thefts could lead to abuse

January 14, 1998|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County, out to slow troublesome car-theft rates, announced a program yesterday that will allow police to pull over any car officers see on the roads between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. if a red and blue decal is displayed in the back window.

Those stickers are shorthand from drivers afraid the cars they don't normally drive at night could be stolen -- and that whoever is driving should be stopped and questioned.

The American Civil Liberties Union has qualms about that. The program, the civil libertarians say, could lead to abuse, at best, and, at worst, could open police to civil lawsuits and lead to legal rejection of car theft prosecutions.

Anne Arundel is the third Maryland jurisdiction to join the much-hailed sticker program that Baltimore City and Baltimore County enrolled in two years ago. About 8,000 residents display stickers. The Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council hopes to launch the program statewide within the next year.

It works this way: Car owners sign a waiver to allow officers to pull them over at night without just cause until they prove ownership, or until police can locate the owner to verify that the car should be on the road.

The program is voluntary, police and supporters point out. For some of the 37,000 residents across the state whose cars were stolen in 1996, loss of privacy and due process rights seems a small price to pay for security.

But it's not the waiver-signing owners the ACLU is worried about, said Dwight Sullivan, staff counsel for the Maryland ACLU. It's the baby sitter borrowing the car while the parents are on vacation out of state, or the friend picking up the minivan late one night as a favor. Or even thieves, who could claim police had no right to stop them in the first place -- and get out of deserved punishment.

While owners are free to sign their rights away, Sullivan said, they can't sign away the rights of anybody else.

"In practice, this is not a viable program," he said. "Police are running the risk that, one, evidence will be thrown out of court because they didn't have just cause to pull the car over, or, two, they will end up losing a judgment in a civil case."

The debate so far is academic, but ACLU officials say the potential for a legal battle over the stickers is great. A baby sitter, for example, detained while police track down owners vacationing in Florida, could sue police and win a settlement.

Fourth Amendment rights of due process travel with each person in this country, Sullivan said, not with each car. Even if a person is in a car that someone else has put a sticker on, the Constitution still protects him.

"It is potentially problematic," Sullivan said, "but no one will know until it is tested in court."

Police familiar with the program and the Theft Prevention Council, which is funding all three programs, stand up for the stickers. They say the program is part of the reason that car thefts in Baltimore city and county have fallen 20 percent in the past two years, and the council said none of the 8,000 cars with the decal has been stolen.

Last year, the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance sponsored similar state programs in Arizona and New Mexico and is looking to start one in Maryland this year. No pTC lawsuits have arisen from either state, said the council's executive director, W. Ray Presley.

"You sign a waiver, and with that waiver you give police permission to stop the car," Presley said. "If your son or daughter or friend is driving, that's your responsibility to let them know.

"There has been some reluctance of politicians to pass it because of that issue, but the legality has been tested with the Department of Justice," he said.

Sullivan of the ACLU said he suspects the Department of Justice has not considered the ramifications.

"You could run into a situation where police pull someone over who was legitimately driving the car but had drugs in the car," Sullivan said. "That evidence could be suppressed because the court might find [police] had no reason to pull that person over in the first place."

Anne Arundel police Chief Larry Tolliver is touting the program.

"We think this program will really help curtail vehicle theft," he said at a news conference at the Eastern District Police Station. "Thefts are dropping off, but we want to take a bigger bite."

So does Anne Arundel resident Rick Williamson, 64, one of the first dozen county residents to sign up for a decal.

"With that on my back window," he said pointing to the decal, "the thief might go somewhere else. It's as simple as that."

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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