CRIME PREVENTION YSU suspends rip-off policy on campus
An ACLU representative argues that the policy violates privacy rights.
By NORMAN LEIGH
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Until recently, the long arm of the law at Youngstown State University could reach into your vehicle and take your belongings.
That's changed, at least for now.
Citing possible legal issues and constitutional concerns about privacy, university officials recently halted a YSU police practice of entering unsecured vehicles parked on campus, taking valuables and leaving a bright yellow card saying "You Could Have Been Ripped Off." The card instructs the vehicle owners to retrieve their things at the police station.
Items police have carried off have included compact discs and stereo equipment. In one instance, baseball bats and gloves were grabbed.
The practice, in use for about 20 years at YSU as a crime-prevention tool, was suspended several days ago after The Vindicator asked questions about it.
"We're going to investigate it," said John Habat, YSU's vice president for administration.
Habat, who oversees the police department, said he became aware of the practice only when The Vindicator began inquiring about it.
It's legitimate to question the practice, Habat said. The policy is based "on very good intentions," he said. "But does it pass the muster of constitutional inquiry?" added Habat, who is an attorney.
Until that and other legal questions are answered, the practice will remain discontinued, he said.
To aid them in their inquiry, university officials are consulting with the Ohio Attorney General's office, Habat added.
Supports the decision
Applauding the decision to halt the practice was Atty. Jeffrey Gamso of Toledo, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Ohio branch.
"I think they should make it permanent," Gamso said of the suspension. "The policy was wrong, and it should be abandoned."
Gamso called the practice a "government invasion of private property. It's not the police's job to take everything and store it at the police department."
Leaving valuables in an unsecured vehicle may be foolish, but people have a right to make bad decisions, he insisted.
YSU Police Chief John Gocala defended the program and said items are actually removed only a few times a year. If police can, they'll simply lock an unlocked car, or roll up the windows. Items are taken only when the vehicle can't be made secure.
"We're not stealing anything, we're securing it," Gocala said.
"Very few people have complained. Most of the time you get a 'thank you,'" he added.
Angela Mavrikis, a senior communications studies major at YSU and president of the university's student government association, said it's probably wise to stop the policy while it's being examined.
Mavrikis said she was unaware of the practice, though it seems like a reasonable courtesy to protect property.
She added, though, that it might be alarming for someone to return to their vehicle and find it locked, or items missing.
Some people purposely leave their vehicles unsecured because the locks don't work, she added.
The ACLU's Gamso acknowledged the practice could thwart crime. But "is that sufficient justification for invasion of your car? My answer is 'no,'" he said.
Police don't have any business entering a vehicle without a consent to search, even if it's to lock doors or roll up windows, Gamso argued.
The action could have unintended effects, he said. What if, in opening a vehicle to secure it, a police officer found illegal drugs, a murder weapon or some other criminal evidence.
"That could be a problem," Gocala acknowledged.
If an effort were made to prosecute the vehicle's owner, a defense attorney might succeed in having the evidence pitched as the fruit of an illegal search, Gamso said.
Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains agreed that the policy could complicate evidentiary matters. It also presents privacy and custody of property questions, Gains said. What if someone claimed an item was removed by police when it actually wasn't?
YSU is wise to suspend the practice until it's "researched thoroughly," he added.
Before YSU halted the policy, Gamso planned to have it reviewed by the ACLU for possible action, including filing a lawsuit against the university to have it stopped.
The ACLU review will be put on hold, unless YSU eventually restores the practice, Gamso said.