Sunday, May 10, 2009

I'll bet the bikes didn't have lights.

In a conversation about crime last Winter, another local blogger said something about young guys on bikes making him nervous, especially at night. He went on to ask another person present if it was true that the problem of muggers on bikes in the French Quarter had grown worse in recent months. I don't out as much as I used to, but even I had heard similar stories. This City Business report on armed robberies in the French Quarter doesn't say anything about, but this post* about an incident in Marigny does.

I didn't push it as a topic of conversation, but during the discussion last Winter, I mentioned something that had occurred to me a few nights earlier. While walking along Bayou St.John one evening, I noticed three bicyclists turn onto Moss, heading in my direction. Before they got close enough for me to determine age, race or gender, or look for cultural clues, I had decided that they weren't bike riding muggers. It took me a few minutes to realize that because two of the three bikes were equipped with lights, it subconsciously registered that there was nothing to worry about.

So, here's the question, should riding a bike without lights at night be considered probable cause? There is a state law requiring a front light, side reflectors and either a light or reflector on the rear of any bicycle ridden at night -- can't any obvious violation of law be considered probable cause? I'm not suggesting that pulling over every bicyclist on an improperly equipped would have an appreciable effect on the crime rates for the city as a whole (in most of the city, muggers probably use cars to look for victims), but it would eliminate bias issues and at least one concealed weapon would have been found had the three Marigny muggers been pulled over -- I'd be willing to bet that those bikes didn't have lights.

I'm certainly not suggesting that everybody who rides a bike without a light should get a ticket, the last thing we is more petty arrests clogging the system. However, I'd be willing to bet that, at least at first, such a policy would lead to a considerable number of concealed weapons charges. I wouldn't consider concealed handgun charges petty. Hell, for various reasons, I sometimes find myself riding at night without a light, and I wouldn't want to get a ticket everytime that happened. But, I couldn't certainly understand getting stopped and frisked and having a records check run. If it caused me to miss the beginning of a TV program, that would be my own fault for riding without a light.

I can see a couple of obvious drawbacks to such a policy. Outside of the French Quarter and Marigny, I can't see it having an appreciable effect. Exceptions might have to be made for bicycle delivery people (who might consider it safer to ride in the Quarter at night without a light), and that could lead to the slippery slope of officer discretion. The city might not be able to resist the temptation to turn into a revenue measure, although I can't imagine there being enough potential revenue to offer much temptation. It might be that, once a police officer calls in a code violation to run a check for outstanding warrants, he's obligated to write a ticket. That would lead to the problem of time and resources being wasted on petty offenses, but, if that's the case, the law could be changed.

I'm not suggesting this would be a major breakthrough, but there's an easily defined problem, or smaller part of a larger problem, and I'm sugesting a partial, only partial, solution. Muggers use bicycles to get around in a relatively small, relatively congested area (The French Quarter, parts of Marigny, probably parts of the CBD), but the police obviously can't stop and frisk every cyclists in that area. Even if I weren't a cyclist, I'd cringe at the thought of such an obvious infringement on civil liberties, but I'll guarantee you that the thugs also break other laws that would give the police probable cause to pull them over -- in addition to laws about bikes being properly equipped with lights and reflectors, there's also riding against traffic. Sure, the muggers would adjust, but that's the way it always work. The police come up with a new traffic for combating crime, if it works there's an increased number of arrests and drop in crime. Then, the criminals come up with new tactics and crime rates go back up. So what? You take the temporary drop in crime rates and have the police come up with new tactics down the road.

*Part of a crime roundup at NOLA-DISHU.

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