With the suspects now facing trials, Bait Car producers won't give defense attorneys show footage as evidence. On what grounds? The shield law for journalists.
It was Friday the 13th, and the car that drove up on Divisadero was bad luck from the start. Cullen Farrell, a 32-year-old stage technician who has refined dropping the F-word into an art, recalls dragging on a Camel Light in front of Mini Bar, near McAllister Street, as he talked with bar owner John Ordona. Suddenly, a silver 2007 Honda Accord stopped in front and two yelling women got out and fled in a cab. There sat the car — blocking the lane closest to the curb, door open, idling with the keys in the ignition. "I'm like, 'What the fuck is that?'" Farrell recalls.
If you know Farrell, as most regulars at Mini Bar seem to, you'd know his boisterous flip-you-the-bird-to-say-hello personality includes a streak of Good Samaritan. Back a few years when a driver got shot by a wayward bullet just down the block, he was the one who ran to help. A friend drinking with Farrell at Mini Bar recently said his do-gooder impulses can border on naive. Farrell will start nursing school next month.
So while many would decide the abandoned car was none of their business, Farrell decided to take action. "I look at John and I'm like, 'This is really weird,'" he recalls saying. "Call the cops. I'm gonna move this car."
Farrell hopped in the driver's seat and drove around the block, he claims, to find a parking spot. He noticed the accelerator seemed sluggish, as though it had a limiter on it, and after spotting a cop car coming the other way, his thoughts turned to "Something is wrong, and now I'm in a car that's not mine."
Anxious to get the heck out, Farrell parked in a bus zone at the corner of McAllister and Divisadero — just feet from where the women had ditched the car — and flicked on the hazard lights. But getting out of the situation wouldn't be so easy. As he stepped out of the car, bedlam erupted.
Motorcycle cops zoomed in, followed by several squad cars. As the police were barking orders, at least three people holding videocameras swarmed around him, capturing the whole spectacle. A big light illuminated him, and passersby stopped to gawk. "Real subtle stuff," he remembers, sarcastically. "Not embarrassing at all."
Farrell was under arrest, charged with stealing a car. And with the help of the San Francisco Police Department, it was all caught on tape for a nationwide reality TV audience.
For several weeks in August and September, the SFPD entered show business. Police Chief George Gascón, a press-savvy leader from the media-friendly LAPD, approved the department's participation in Bait Car, a reality show on the truTV cable network that airs alongside programs like Operation Repo and Las Vegas Jailhouse. (Gascón accepted former Mayor Gavin Newsom's appointment as district attorney on Jan. 9.)
Police netted more than 30 alleged car thieves, many of whom you can see in the episodes that have aired since late December. What you won't see disclosed on TV is the special relationship between the police and the producers — the fact that Hollywood-based KKI Productions donated two specially outfitted bait cars worth $31,000 to the police's fleet. The show won't reveal that KKI paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime to dozens of police officers. The sergeants in charge say sometimes the officers were on the clock.
You also won't see what happens to the people caught in the sting once the cameras are turned off. Two men were thrown in prison for parole violations. Some pleaded guilty. Others face trials on misdemeanor and even felony joyriding charges.
But other cases have been dismissed for a lack of evidence that the people caught on camera were actual thieves, although many of them are called thieves on the show.
Defense attorneys are crying entrapment and say it's a massive waste of the SFPD's time and resources for the sake of entertainment and a couple of free cars. Of course, while KKI spent $40,000 per episode to film here, the alleged thieves — the stars of the show — don't get a dime.
Along with the criminal issues at hand, San Francisco courts have now plunged into the middle of a national legal debate. Do reality TV producers who record criminal acts deserve the same protections as journalists? Public defenders have requested all the footage of their clients — showing their actions and words before getting into the car, and whether the car was illegally parked or creating a hazard.
But KKI is refusing to hand over footage to the defense, except for the portion taken by one camera inside the car. On what grounds? California's shield law, a safeguard to stop reporters from having to turn over unpublished material as evidence. In short, the Bait Car producers are claiming to be journalists. Farrell blasts their chance of success in court like a rowdy reality TV character plugging an upcoming challenge: "They're going to get their ass handed to them. They're not journalists. They're fucking shills."
Bait Car has some things to say about Farrell, too. If you tuned in for the first San Francisco episode on Dec. 27, you'd never know that the district attorney's office ended up dismissing his case "in the interest of justice." The show opened with a shot of Farrell driving the bait car and the bluntest of introductions: "This is a car thief." Later on, Farrell spews the F-word (which is bleeped out) while getting arrested as the narrator intones, "A cocky car thief thinks he's above the law."
Al Tompkins, a broadcast news expert at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, says Farrell may have a defamation claim for being portrayed in a false light. Turner Broadcasting, the owner of truTV, declined to comment for this story. But the show seems to be prepared for legal actions like that, flashing a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode: "All individuals on this show are considered innocent until proven guilty."