Victory: Richmond Police End ‘Wake Up Call’ Initiative After Rutherford Institute Warns It Could Lead to Fishing Expeditions, Confrontations
RICHMOND, Va.— One day after receiving a letter from constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute warning that the department’s “Wake Up Call” initiative poses serious threats to the privacy and security of homeowners, the Richmond Police Department has terminated the program, announcing that it will come to an end on May 1. The initiative, begun on April 7, directs police officers to examine the interiors of parked cars between the hours of midnight and 4:00 a.m. for the presence of valuables left in plain view and wake up the owners to alert them to the dangers of vandalism. However, as Whitehead pointed out, not only could the initiative become a pretext for officers to engage in “fishing expeditions,” but the late-night knocks could also unduly alarm residents who mistake the police visits for home invasions, leading to violent confrontations.
The Institute’s letter to the Richmond Police Department is available here.
“This is a victory for the Fourth Amendment and the privacy and property rights of homeowners,” said Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “This is also a good example of how democratic government can and should work. As Patrick Henry reminded us, ‘The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government—lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.’”
The Richmond Police Department’s “Wake Up Call” initiative, which is carried out between the hours of midnight and 4:00 a.m., reportedly tasks officers with examining the interiors of vehicles parked on neighborhood streets to determine whether any valuables are in plain view inside the vehicle. If officers determine that valuables are present in plain view, they then verify through motor vehicle records whether the owner lives in the neighborhood, and if so, “midnight shift officers [would then] knock on the [owner’s] front door for an unexpected wakeup call.” Eighteen such wake up calls have occurred since the initiative began. However, as Whitehead pointed out in his letter, the program gives rise to numerous concerns that warrant putting an end to it. First, because police do not have an absolute right to intrude upon residential property, their presence on residential property in the middle of the night could be viewed as an encroachment upon the Fourth Amendment rights of the homeowners. Second, a police officer’s late-night knock on a resident’s door could cause the homeowner to mistake the police visit for a home invasion, thereby leading to an unintended violent confrontation. Third, in the absence of probable cause as required by the Fourth Amendment, the initiative could become a pretext for officers to engage in “fishing expeditions” at residences that officers desire to inspect or search. As Whitehead concluded, “There are certainly other means available to the Richmond Police to serve the goals of the ‘Wake Up Call’ initiative without invading the privacy and security of homeowners.”