Woodford County

Versailles police hope thieves will take the bait. The bait car, that is.

Versailles police insignia.
Versailles police insignia.

Attention, thieves: If you’re thinking about stealing valuables from a car, steer clear of Versailles.

That’s because the Woodford County seat plans to use a “bait car” to reduce thefts from vehicles.

A bait car is a vehicle modified by law enforcement to catch thieves who steal from cars or who steal cars. The bait car typically includes surveillance equipment to catch the offender in the act, although some are sophisticated enough to lock the doors and disable the vehicle so that the thief can’t escape.

Earlier this month, Versailles City Council voted to approve Mayor Brian Traugott’s request to spend up to $20,000 for bait-car equipment.

“Like every other town, we have sporadic rashes of car break-ins in driveways,” Traugott said. “People will go through a neighborhood and hit 10 or 15 cars.

“I realize it’s just a nuisance crime. I mean, there are far worse crimes committed,” Traugott said. “But it’s frequent enough that it’s worthy of attention, especially in the summer.”

The $20,000 will be spent to modify an existing vehicle, not to buy a car, said Versailles Police Chief James Fugate.

“We’ve got vehicles in our fleet that don’t look like police cars,” the chief said.

Fugate said break-ins are reported throughout the year, but Traugott hopes to have the car ready by summer. Versailles police respond to calls in Midway and throughout Woodford County, so the car would be moved wherever car break-ins arise.

Traugott got the idea after seeing a video in which an offender was locked inside a bait car. That may be “a little drastic,” he said.

“I don’t want to open up a liability can of worms,” he said.

Bait cars have been used elsewhere in the country. Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation has used them to catch thieves who steal valuables from cars. Nashville police have used them; so have the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in British Columbia.

But Lexington and Louisville police don’t use them, nor do departments in Danville, Richmond, Georgetown or Nicholasville. Jim Pendergraff, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police, said he was not aware of any police department in the state that uses bait cars.

As Traugott envisions it, a laptop computer or some other valuable would be in view from outside a bait car to entice a would-be thief. The car would then be parked in an area where break-ins have been reported.

That might sound like entrapment, but it’s not.

A 1984 ruling by the Kentucky Court of Appeals said the state’s entrapment defense requires the accused to prove two things: That police conduct created a substantial risk that the crime would be committed, and that the accused otherwise would not have been predisposed to commit it.

Lexington defense attorney Jerry Wright puts this into plain English.

If you buy drugs from an undercover informant for the police, “you’re doing it of your own free choosing. Nobody’s forcing you to do it,” Wright said. “Even though the police are behind that and you don’t know that, the police are not making you do anything that you’re not willing to do on your own.

“So the same thing would hold true for that bait car,” Wright said. “If that car is placed in an area that is a high-crime area, the fact that they make the car available does not give the person a defense. They make the conscious choice to take that next step” and commit an offense.

Wright continued: “If I came by and I said, ‘Hey, how do you like this car?’ And you said, ‘Gosh, I really like it.’ And then if I threw you the keys and said, ‘Here, take it for a spin. See how you like it.’ And then you do that and the cops try and arrest you, well that’s setting you up. That would be entrapping you.

“But if you do it of you own volition with nobody telling you to do it and you choose to take that next step, that’s on you.”