A year after truTV's Bait Car rolled into town to catch San Franciscans on camera "stealing" vehicles, more than half of the resulting criminal cases have been dismissed, the public defender's office says.
We wrote a cover story on the police department's money-making gig with the reality TV channel earlier this year -- the show paid the cops more than $200,000 in overtime and gave the SFPD two fancy bait cars for its fleet in return for police staging the operation on camera. At that time, the cops told us they arrested 32 people.
While the show paints all of the culprits as real car thieves, the judicial system has come to a very different conclusion. First, the district attorney charged the defendants with joyriding charges -- which has a lower burden of proof than grand theft auto cases. To date, of the 18 cases handled by the Public Defender's Office, 11 have been dismissed, raising questions about the reality show's public safety payoff.
"It seems like an extraordinary waste of money for nothing," says Evan Budaj, an attorney at the Public Defender's Office who has worked on the cases. The cases, "are all getting dismissed or shuffled off for very little. The district attorney's spokeswoman said she'd call us with complete statistics on case dismissals as soon as she had them." (Some cases were handled by private defense attorneys, and one man represented himself at trial.) We'll update when we have more information.
SFPD told us that while they were doing the operation for a TV show, their ultimate goal was to catch car thieves. But Budaj argues that the show doesn't really care what happens to the alleged thieves when the cameras stop rolling. Rather, taxpayers end up footing the bill for the accused joyriders on trial.
"I heard it costs them $200 dollars to put a line on [the court's] calendar for a particular day, with the administrative costs and clerks," Budaj says. He noted that he handed a recent case where the defendant had 23 court dates, and then was dismissed. "I think the people's reluctance to bring these [cases] to trial just further shows it was about the money, the TV show, and the cars that were donated to the city."
Budaj says the most recent dismissals came after the district attorney handed over the production company's footage of the alleged joyriding incidents. Hollywood-based KKI Productions initially resisted turning over footage of the arrests, citing the Shield Law for reporters. But two San Francisco judges ruled that KKI had waived its right to the Shield Law in its contract with the city, which stated the company would hand over any footage requested by the district or city attorney.
Budaj speculates that the footage played into the district attorney's decision to dismiss the recent cases.
"I always knew that this whole practice was kind of shady, and I'd like to think the district attorney seeing these videos might have forced them to see what was really happening and see themselves that it was not entirely straightforward," he told us. "It wasn't about catching people doing something wrong -- It was about creating something wrong for people to do and watching them do it."