April 26, 2012
Richmond police are violating residents' constitutional rights by waking them in the middle of the night with a knock on the door to admonish them for leaving valuables in plain sight in their parked cars, a civil liberties group said Wednesday.
The Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute said in a letter to Police Chief Bryan Norwood that the department's new "Wake Up Call" initiative invades residents' privacy and infringes on their Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable police intrusions. The program also heightens the risk of a violent confrontation between police and an alarmed resident, the institute said.
"The recent Trayvon Martin incident from Florida should serve as a stark warning of how the fear and misunderstanding of a homeowner can turn a benign situation into tragedy involving loss of life," John W. Whitehead, executive director of the Rutherford Institute, wrote in the letter.
The police department had no immediate comment.
Richmond police implemented the initiative, which is conducted between midnight and 4 a.m., after a rash of car break-ins in some neighborhoods. Officers look inside parked vehicles and if they see any valuables they go to the owner's home, knock on the door and warn that the property could be stolen.
Whitehead said in his letter that the right of police to come to a person's door is not absolute. He said the "implied consent" to such encroachment on private property applies only when police have a legitimate purpose and during reasonable hours.
"Because the 'Wake Up Call' initiative is carried out between midnight and 4 a.m., it is by definition unreasonable and beyond the scope of the implied consent that might exist during daytime and early evening hours," Whitehead wrote.
Whitehead also wrote that that the initiative could become a pretext for police to engage in "fishing expeditions" when they want to search a home but lack probable cause.
"It is hardly unimaginable that officers with a 'hunch' that illegal activity is taking place in a residence will use the 'Wake Up Call' initiative as an excuse to get the occupant of a house to open his or her door, thereby allowing the police to view the interior of the residence," Whitehead wrote.
The police department was unable to immediately provide statistics on how many "wake up calls" have been made since the initiative began earlier this month.
The Rutherford Institute, founded in 1982, focuses largely on religious liberty, free speech and illegal search and seizure issues. Most recently, the institute has been an outspoken critic of what it considers personally intrusive airport security measures and zero-tolerance public school discipline policies.