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Riverview cops’ warning notes raise concerns

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

If you leave your car unlocked in Riverview, the police will let you know about it.

Garage door left open? Valuables left unattended? You’ll hear about that, too.

For the past month, some residents of the Downriver community have found neon green placards, about a foot tall and 6 inches wide, affixed to car door handles, parking meters or front doors warning of crime opportunities.

“Residents like to know that we are doing our job and care so much. They like to know that the streets are safer,” said Lt. Joseph Jakubus of the Riverview Police Department.

Still, the program has raised some concerns that the police are going too far in checking private property, or that it gives police an excuse to conduct unreasonable searches.

Jakubus insists the initiative is not breaking any laws.

“We are not going around checking into windows or jiggling handles on doors. We are not violating any rights,” Jakubus said.

Attorney Deborah Gordon in Bloomfield Hills, who specializes in civil rights and police misconduct cases, said the police aren’t doing anything illegal, but bigger issues could arise when it comes to privacy and rights.

“Police or anybody can look inside of a car if it’s out in public. There is no law against that,” said Gordon, who has been practicing for more than 35 years. “It can pose a problem if the police are intentionally walking up to a person’s private property and looking to see if a car door is unlocked or going up to someone’s door leaving a tag.”

Gordon said the police have to prove that something is illegal or suspicious activity is going on in order to search private property.

Resident Donald Mason isn’t concerned privacy is being invaded. But he does wonder if the tags could pose a problem for homeowners who may be on vacation.

“If someone is out of town and one of these notices is on a door for a few days, it’s possible a burglar may take notice and try to gain access to a house,” Mason said. “Making an appointment with a resident or making sure the resident is home before checking a property seems like it would be a much safer and better way.”

Jakubus also dismissed suggestions the placards may alert criminals to an easy target.

“The signs are not left out in the open as people think they are. These signs are not inviting criminals,” he said. “We place them inside the handle of the door, or we put it in an area where only the owner can see.”

The police initiative is similar to one used by the city’s animal control department. Workers there notify pet owners by leaving a badge if they see an animal left unattended or loose.

Riverview is the only city in Michigan using the police warning placards.

Police in Boston are taking a similar approach by placing stickers on parking meters to remind residents to lock their doors and to put items such as laptops and GPS systems out of plain view.

City rated safe

Riverview had a decrease in thefts from 145 in 2011 to 78 in 2012, according to FBI crime reports. In 2014, listed the city as the third safest in Michigan.

Melanie Hazey, who lives in neighboring Southgate, says that while preventing theft is important, “I don’t think placing a sticker on houses and car doors would necessarily remind people to lock their doors and windows.

“Reminding people with a green sticker would easily be a trigger for theft, and I feel enforcing this project would be unnecessary and unwanted,” she said.

Attorney John Cothorn of Cothorn and Mackley PC in Detroit, said the police’s actions have nothing to do with invasion of privacy issues.

“The Fourth Amendment has no application to this type of police conduct. It protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government,” said Cothorn, who handles no-fault and general liability cases. “This is why we pay taxes for public safety. This type of proactive conduct is designed to help and protect the people.”

Esperanza Ortiz, a retired police officer with the city of Detroit, thinks other cities should consider the placard program.

‘A great idea’

“It’s a great idea that Riverview is implementing this approach,” said Ortiz, who served for 20 years with Detroit. “It’s proactive policing techniques that make the city residents feel safe.”

It is too early in the campaign to know if the placards are discouraging criminal activity, but city officials hope the initiative will facilitate communication between the residents and its law enforcement.

“Since the program has started, it has given me the opportunity to speak with residents that don’t otherwise know who I am,” Jakubus said. “They can call and ask questions. In the end, we want this to be a positive, not a bad thing.”