Residents are furious after their homes were burgled by the police as part of a new anti-crime initiative.
Officers in Exeter, Devon, have been entering houses through open windows or unlocked doors to leave a warning about theft.
Once inside the homes they pick up any valuable items they see such as iPods and leave them in a ”swag bag” for the owner to find.
They also leave a letter explaining how easy it was to break in and warning the homeowner to lock their doors and windows when they go out.
Officers have targeted around 50 properties in the first month of the scheme.
But residents and legal experts have slammed the initiative as ”trespass” and say it is an invasion of privacy.
Homeowner Mike Parsons fumed: ”Talk about a police state. Since when have members of the constabulary been allowed to enter into someone’s private property uninvited and without a warrant?
”How long before a police officer is attacked and fatally wounded by a worried householder who hears a noise downstairs and then attacks an intruder? This is trespass, plain and simple.”
Criminal law experts have described the scheme as ”incredibly risky” as police are required to have a warrant to enter a residential property.
Neil Scott, of Foot Anstey solicitors, said: ”I have never heard of anything like this before and it seems to be incredibly risky.
”No one has the automatic right of entry to someone else’s property without consent – that applies to police officers and members of the public and whether it is unsecured is irrelevant.
”Police need a warrant from a magistrates court if they wish to do this or they may enter a property if they believe an offence is being committed.
”With regard to this initiative, they neither had a warrant nor were they dealing with an offence.
”To my mind, if they have entered properties like this, they are trespassers. Trespassing is not a criminal offence but it is considered a civil wrong and could be pursued through the courts as such.
”What if one of the home owners goes on to claim that something has gone missing while the officers were in the property? This is also burglary, although unlikely to lead to prosecution.
”And everyone is entitled to defend their property from intruders. Conceivably, an officer could have been attacked.
”If the police then tried to prosecute this as assaulting a police officer, the home owner would have a strong legal defence.”
He added: ”If a householder were to make a complaint about this operation, I could quite easily see it leading to disciplinary proceedings.
”They are exposed to all manner of risks. I presume the force has looked into all of this but it seems to me to be a very strange course of action.”
The operation involved officers from Devon and Cornwall Police and police community support officers.
Neighbourhood Team Sergeant Andy Nordqvist (corr) said the majority of homes visited were student accommodation.
He said: ”There has recently been a rise in burglaries in student accommodation, especially those that are multi-occupancy houses.
”The vast majority of these have been unsecured properties with the offender gaining entry through either an open, unlocked door, or window.
”The neighbourhood policing team have been working closely with the residents and the university to educate students as to the dangers of leaving their homes unsecured.
”It was clear that they were not heeding our advice and an innovative approach was needed. We were very careful to ensure that no criminal offences were committed.
”Should we receive any complaints, these would obviously be investigated in the appropriate manner.”