Okay, so there may be a legal distinction, but I’m not so sure it’s a distinction with a real difference, morally speaking. Because if a given bait car were not parked at a specific location, or a bait wallet left on a specific park bench, there wouldn’t be a potential crime to be committed, and arguably, parking a car in a vulnerable location, and leaving it unlocked, or leaving a wallet on a park bench, is enticing someone towards committing a particular evil that they wouldn’t have otherwise committed, had not the police dangled the carrot in front of them, even if not actually goading them into taking it. It’s like punishing an evil thought or impulse, by providing an easy target for that particular impulse. When it nabs a first-time offender, how can anyone reasonably conclude otherwise? Is such enticement fundamentally that different from entrapment?
Here’s a clue: if it doesn’t belong to you, don’t take it. It really is that damn simple. The devil doesn’t make you do anything, and the mere presence of temptation is no reason to succumb. Obviously, this an aspirational ideal, but trying to say that cops shouldn’t use bait cars to snare people into incriminating themselves because that presents temptation is simply fucking stupid.
First off, the temptations stems from internal desire, not external opportunity. I never feel like I’m all that likely to get snagged by a bait car. Why? Because I never ever feel like I should go steal a car. Yes, the bait car may be an easy target for criminals, but even if there were no bait cars, or said bait cars were difficult targets, it does not follow that criminals would be less tempted to steal cars. The temptation to steal is there, though the motivation to steal may decline as the difficulty to satisfy one’s urge becomes costlier or more difficult. But motivation to act and temptation are not the same thing, and Will mistakes one for the other and conflates the two.
In the second place, there is the more practical matter of dealing with criminals in the real world. As much as it might hurt to face this unpleasant fact, there are simply criminal elements in this world that simply will not go away. As such, there is and must be a constant fight against these elements. The battle is not fair, or clearly winnable (in a sense), but it must occur. While I am no fan of active crime prevention, bait cars do at least minimize the costs of crime borne by individual citizens, as the government—sorry, the taxpayers—foots the costs of providing bait cars. Since bait cars are 100% effective (i.e. anyone trapped in a bait car is pretty much going to jail) at capturing criminals, they are superior to non-bait car that wind up stolen since not all non-bait cars are recovered, and not all recoveries are successfully prosecuted.
Now, it may be argued that this is not a fair fight. True enough. But why the fuck would anyone fight fair with criminals? The entire premise of the criminal justice is that one is assumed innocent until proven guilty, and the whole purpose of this foundation is to protect the innocent not the guilty. I, personally, would love to see all career criminals* slaughtered for their crimes. The earth has no use for their evil. The innocent I wish to protect, but the evil I wish to see residing in hell as soon as travel arrangements can be made.
As such, the whole argument for or against bait cars really turns on this question: How many people who get trapped by bait cars are either first-time offenders, wholly innocent, or generally deserving of second chances? By this I mean how many people entrapped by bait cars are not unrepentant evildoers? I suspect that the answer is close to zero, but I cannot prove it. Assuming I am right, though, it would appear that bait cars serve as a valuable law enforcement tool as they make it easy to capture and prosecute a large number of unrepentant evildoers whose actions pose significant property costs to a largely innocent populace.
So, to answer the question: Bait cars may not be positively moral, but I don’t see how anyone can make a credible argument that they are immoral, unless one first shows that bait cars generally entrap people who are not unrepentant evildoers.
* Defined as those who habitually violate others’ property rights. This doesn’t include one-time offenders, or those who violate regulations that have nothing to do with property rights (e.g. drug laws or traffic laws).