O’Fallon, MO – A Missouri man is pushing to have an O’Fallon police officer criminally charged for looking inside his snow-covered vehicle to make sure the resident wasn’t the victim of a car burglary.
The incident occurred in January, as the officer was tracking a set of footprints in the snow that appeared to belong to a suspect who was entering unlocked vehicles and stealing items from inside, resident James Lewis told KMOV.
“He followed the suspect’s footprints in the snow over various streets and he would open unlocked car doors to see if it appeared any thefts had occurred,” Fallon Interim Police Chief Gary George explained in an email. “If it appeared the vehicle’s interior had been disturbed or items stolen he would then contact the vehicle owner."
Lewis said he was getting ready for work, when his security system alerted him that someone was on his property.
"At first I didn't know who it was. I was getting ready to come out and confront him. Then I saw the patch and knew it was a police officer," he told KMOV.
The officer walked across Lewis’ yard, then briefly opened the driver’s side door of a snow-covered vehicle parked in the driveway.
The footage glitched, and the officer was gone when it resumed.
Lewis admitted that after the officer checked his vehicle, he came to the front door to speak to him, but Lewis didn’t bother to go to the door.
He said that the same officer and a lieutenant returned to his home on Wednesday to explain that the officer had been investigating the rash of vehicle break-ins.
"They said the reason why he did that was he was following the leads and the footprints in the snow and checking for vehicles that had been broken into,” Lewis said. “But there was no evidence of my vehicle being broke into.”
Lewis said the officer should be criminally charged for opening his car door.
“I would like to see the officer charged,” he told KMOV. “Because that’s technically breaking and entering. He went into my vehicle without a search warrant. He has no authorization, there was no evidence of a crime in my vehicle, I was not wanted for nothing.”
In an email, Chief George told a city alderman that he understood the homeowner's concern, but that the officer was trying to locate and notify victims.
"I believe the officer was doing his job and proactively tracking the suspect’s footprints in the snow,” the chief wrote. “At the same time, I do understand the homeowner’s concern when he observed our officer open his vehicle door on the Ring doorbell video."
O’Fallon Assistant Police Chief Major John Neske said that the officer did nothing wrong, and noted that “breaking and entering” isn’t even an actual offense, KMOV reported.
“We were called that morning for break-ins inside vehicles,” Maj. Neske reiterated. “The thieves were checking handles on the doors. If it was open, they were rummaging through and stealing items, and if it was locked, they went on to the next car.”
“So, [the officers] were walking, following [footprints], checking the doors,” he continued. “If they opened, they took a quick peek in, shut the door. Or if it looked rummaged through, they tried to contact the home owner then [moved on] to identify additional vehicles.”
Maj. Neske said that trespassing or burglary are the offenses most similar to the “breaking and entering” situation Lewis has mentioned, but that both would require proof of criminal intent.
“The officer did not commit a crime,” the major concluded. “There was no intent. The only intent of the officers that morning was to help the citizens of O’Fallon and catch somebody that was victimizing our citizens.”
“They decided to walk that neighborhood in zero-degree temperatures to try to find additional victims,” he added. “I applaud them.”
Lewis said he still wants to file charges against the officer, and that he has hired an attorney.