The Austin Chronicle

Homeless Sting Smarts

By Jordan Smith, March 3, 2006, News

At press time, three of seven homeless men caught in the APD's four-day sting operation (code-named Operation Out of the Box) back in January have been no-billed by a Travis Co. grand jury, and the charges against them have been dismissed. According to a Jan. 20 APD press release, downtown cops stung more than a dozen folks in the operation, arresting and charging them with "felony arrest by appropriation," and arresting a handful of others on drug-related charges. The cops targeted downtown and West Campus neighborhoods where it appeared a fencing operation was, perhaps, fueling the "increase in burglary of vehicles, businesses and residences." All but one of those arrested, noted APD, had a prior criminal record for a host of charges.

Still, news of the arrests didn't go over well with everyone, including Richard Troxell, president of House the Homeless, who argued that the sting was less about clearing the streets of criminals and more about clearing the street of homeless. According to at least seven affidavits filed in connection with the sting, police targeted a downtown area known to have a "significant" homeless operation. An undercover cop posed as a bicycle thief, looking to fence a nearly $1,800 bike for money or drugs. (The bike's value, of course, meant anyone picked up in the exchange would be charged with a felony.) In one case, a man – who listed his address as the Salvation Army – offered to trade a day planner, a jacket, and a pair of sunglasses; in another, a man who also listed the Salvation Army as his residence offered the cops $2 for the bike. The ridiculousness of the trade infuriated Troxell, who suggested the "sting" sounded like entrapment at best, and mean-spirited cruelty at worst; tempting a poor, homeless person with a high-dollar item that they could use for transportation, pawn, or turn in for a reward is like tempting a "person in the desert, dying of thirst, with a canteen of water," he said. It turns out Troxell isn't alone in his assessment; last month he succeeded in securing legal representation for seven of the men. Attorneys Keith Hampton, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, and Linda Icenhauer-Ramirez agreed to take the cases pro bono, and have so far been successful in having three of the cases dismissed. At press time, two of the cases – involving a man who traded $2 for the bike (a case the attorneys suspect will also be dismissed), and one who traded what appeared to be a small amount of crack cocaine for the bike – are still pending. Two other men who traded drugs (one traded .1 gram of crack for the bike, the other – in a stepped-up version of the sting – traded .3 grams of crack for a Pontiac Bonneville) received six-month terms in state jail.

The attorneys were unimpressed by the police work in the sting operation. "It was appalling," said Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez. "It's not legally entrapment, but it's just wrong – like offering a hungry guy some food. [And] they set it up so it would be a felony." Hampton agrees. "It's a waste of police resources," he said. "It's like going to a heroin addict and asking that person to do something [in exchange] for heroin – these people are desperately poor and they're going in there [with an expensive bike]. You're the cops; act like [cops]."

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