It’s the kind of crime you often hear about in the beginning, but you don’t often hear how it ends.
And it’s one of the most common crimes in Columbus: the automobile break-in, usually a crime of opportunity spawned by motorists’ leaving valuables in plain sight, particularly wallets, purses and electronics, but sometimes guns, too – easy pickings for smash-and-grab thieves.
The Georgia law prohibiting it is code section 16-1-18: “If any person shall enter any automobile or other motor vehicle with the intent to commit a theft or a felony, he shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years, or, in the discretion of the trial judge, as for a misdemeanor.”
Judge Frank Jordan Jr. did not have to exercise much discretion Tuesday as he sentenced a 20-year-old to 150 days in jail and five years’ probation on three counts of breaking that law on Aug. 11, 2016: Attorneys already had made a deal in exchange for Jalin Wheeler’s pleading guilty, and Jordan followed the prosecutor’s recommendation.
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Police said Wheeler was one of three young men officers caught prowling around Springwood Court and Cedar Ridge Court, in the Maple Ridge area off Schomburg Road north of Shaw High School.
Neighbors saw the trio breaking into cars about 1:30 a.m. and called 911. When officers arrived, the suspects ran into a yard on Springwood Court, where Wheeler and a second man were caught. A third covered his face with a shirt as he fled into the woods in the 4000 block of Cedar Ridge Court. He was captured, too.
Investigators charged each with breaking into three cars, a couple’s white Acura, a woman’s red Toyota Corolla, and a man’s white Ford truck. As part of Wheeler’s sentencing, Jordan ordered him to pay $700 in restitution to the couple who owned the Acura. He also was ordered to perform 40 hours of community service.
Sentenced as a first offender whose record will be cleared if he meets the terms of his probation, Wheeler also was charged with misdemeanors such as possessing less than an ounce of marijuana and “loitering or prowling.”
What is “loitering or prowling”?
According to his indictment, that means “the said accused … did unlawfully be in a place at a time and in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals, and under circumstances that warrant a justifiable and reasonable alarm or an immediate concern for the safety of persons or property with the vicinity, to-wit: taking multiple items from multiple cars at 1:35 a.m. in the Springwood Court and Cedar Ridge Drive neighborhoods….”
“Loitering or prowling” is prohibited by Georgia code section 16-11-36, which adds that police are not to charge anyone who has a reasonable explanation for such suspicious conduct.
But Wheeler and his alleged accomplices did the first thing the law says not to – they ran away:
“Among the circumstances which may be considered in determining whether alarm is warranted is the fact that the person takes flight upon the appearance of a law enforcement officer, refuses to identify himself, or manifestly endeavors to conceal himself or any object. Unless flight by the person or other circumstances make it impracticable, a law enforcement officer shall, prior to any arrest for an offense under this code section, afford the person an opportunity to dispel any alarm or immediate concern which would otherwise be warranted by requesting the person to identify himself and explain his presence and conduct. No person shall be convicted of an offense under this code section if the law enforcement officer failed to comply with the foregoing procedure or if it appears at trial that the explanation given by the person was true and would have dispelled the alarm or immediate concern.”
Though the offense is only a misdemeanor, it’s notable in these circumstances because someone’s “loitering or prowling” is sufficient reason for concerned residents to call the police. They don’t have to witness a break-in or other crime; the suspicious conduct alone is enough to warrant investigation.
Police still offer the same advice they always have about car burglaries: Don’t leave valuables in your cars, if you can avoid it, and if you can’t, at least don’t leave them in plain sight, particularly overnight.