It's an elicit thrill glorified in two generations of high-octane car-thief movies. It's a profitable crime that can bring a kid with nerve...
OLYMPIA — It’s an elicit thrill glorified in two generations of high-octane car-thief movies. It’s a profitable crime that can bring a kid with nerve and a pocketful of tools thousands of dollars for black-market parts.
And, let’s face it, who hasn’t wanted to take that fancy ride down the street for a spin? In Washington, you can do it seven times before you even have to go to state prison.
The Legislature wants to change all that.
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A measure introduced by a state lawmaker who is also a retired State Patrol officer would stiffen penalties for car thieves, as well as make it illegal to possess the tools of the trade — such as slim jims, false master keys and lock pullers.
Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, also wants a program where car owners could put a sticker on their cars giving police permission to stop their vehicle between 1 and 5 a.m.
“We have needed to address this issue for a long time,” said Lovick, who was with the patrol for 31 years. “We all know that it’s a problem right now, but we haven’t been able to shine a spotlight on the problem yet.”
Auto theft drew public attention in December when a 23-year-old Seattle man admitted to stealing 136 cars in six months. Liam Moynihan was sentenced to a nine-year state prison term.
And Seattle police Officer Elizabeth Nowak was killed in November when a car thief with 20 felony convictions crashed into her private car.
“The bottom line is that [car thieves] should be in prison,” Lovick said. “They should not be out stealing a car somewhere and terrorizing the neighborhood.”
Under current law, a person who only commits auto theft would have to be caught seven times before getting a state prison sentence, said Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
Under the proposed law, prior auto-theft convictions would count in sentencing, so repeat offenders would be sentenced to prison at an earlier stage.
“A lot are done by the same person,” McBride said. “This would nip a car thief early and take that person out of action.”
Lovick, who is speaker pro tempore of the House, said the automobile-theft measure would be one of the Legislature’s top priorities this session. He said he had been working on the bill since May and has 28 co-sponsors, including Republicans.
A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday in the House Committee on Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.
Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, and Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said she would also introduce a bill to strengthen penalties for people who steal vehicles.
“It used to be that if you steal a guy’s horse, you’d hang for it,” Roach said. “Now, the pendulum has swung way the other way, and we need to bring that back.”
Lt. Wes Rethwill, of the State Patrol auto theft division, said the crime is slightly down in the state, but it’s still a big problem. From January to November in 2006, more than 35,000 cars were stolen in the state, he said. In 2005, 41,293 cars were stolen.
“The unfortunate thing is that auto theft is directly related to a multitude of other crimes such as drug use and violent crimes,” Rethwill said.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Washington was ranked fifth in the nation for the number of auto thefts in 2005, behind California, Texas, Florida and Arizona.
That’s up from a ranking of 11th in 2000.
Lovick said an increase in population and Washington’s role as a port state, where thieves can strip down cars and put parts on a ship, have accounted for the rise.
“Washington state is hot on our heels and might pass us up,” said Enrique Cantu, director of Arizona Auto Theft Authority, who has been assisting Lovick on his bill.
The two used to work together as state patrolmen in Washington, and Arizona has similar car-theft bills on the books.
Lovick said his bill would seek to create a Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority, which would be under the purview of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Insurance-bureau spokesman Frank Scafidi said in addition to the bill being considered in Washington, auto-theft measures are being taken up in New Jersey and Mississippi this year. Arizona is also expected to consider additional legislation.