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Law locks doors for auto thieves

Doing their work mostly before the sun rises, again and again they shatter glass, pop locks and gain access to vehicles in myriad ways.

But a new state law aims to crack down on automobile thieves.

House Bill 1001, or the Auto Theft Prevention Act, passed state Legislature April 17 and went into effect July 22. Crafted by Rep. John Lovick, D-44th District, with the help of Rep. Skip Priest, R-30th District, the bill entails stricter punishment for automobile thieves.

In the past five years, Priest, who resides in Federal Way and has served as the city’s mayor, talked with Federal Way residents who let him know automobile theft was among their top concerns, he said.

“We have the people of Federal Way to thank for this new initiative,” Priest said.

The bill affects both adult and juvenile repeat offenders. Prior to its enactment, automobile thieves could get away with stealing seven vehicles before they would possibly spend longer than a year in jail, said Shaya Calvo, King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney. Now, thieves will face such jail time after only three convictions, he said.

In Washington, a car is stolen every 11 minutes, according to House Bill 1001. The state ranks fifth in the nation in the number of automobile thefts, said Bobbi Cussins, House Republican communications spokeswoman.

Since 1994, automobile theft has increased in the state by more than 55 percent, according to the bill.

How the bill works

Before the bill’s enactment, an adult charged with theft of a motor vehicle valued at more than $1,500 could receive two to six months of jail time for a second offense.

Now, this same offense serves as a possible punishment of four to 12 months in jail and/or home detention. Automobile thieves could offend five times before facing a punishment of 12 to 14 months in jail prior to the bill. With five offenses, thieves now face 43 to 57 months in prison.

In Washington, most automobile thefts are committed by juveniles, according to the bill. Under the new law, juveniles will not escape punishment for their actions.

Prior to the bill, a juvenile would face more than a year’s worth of confinement for theft of a vehicle valued at more than $1,500 only after offending five times. Now, the same offense calls for a minimum of 15 to 36 weeks in confinement, seven days of home detention, four months of community supervision, 90 hours of community service and a $400 fine.

Number of thefts

In 2005, more than 50,000 auto thefts were reported, according to the bill. About 80 percent of those vehicles were taken from the heavily populated central Puget Sound region, including King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, according to the bill.

King County has been hit hard by automobile thieves in recent years. In 2006, a total of 38,774 vehicles were reported stolen. Nearly 40 percent of them — 15,447 — were taken from King County, according to 2006 Washington Crime Information Center data. Automobile theft remains a cause for concern in Federal Way.

“It’s been a major issue in Federal Way,” Priest said.

In 2005, the city experienced a 40.7 percent increase in auto theft, according to a 2006 Auto Theft Analysis report compiled by police crime analyst Michelle Landon. In 2006, 1,110 automobile thefts and 89 attempted automobile thefts were reported in Federal Way, according to the same report.

Previous efforts in Washington

House Bill 1001 is not the only effort recently made to combat automobile theft in King County.

Recognizing the staggering numbers of vehicle thefts the county was experiencing, former King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng made a commitment in 2005 to be more aggressive toward the prosecution of automobile thieves, Calvo said.

He created the Car Theft Initiative. The act is geared toward decreasing automobile thefts through the use of communication between the county’s police and prosecutors, Calvo said.

It involves educating police on what prosecutors need to put automobile thieves in jail for a prolonged amount of time, he said. A small number of people are committing most of the automobile thefts in King County, Calvo said. As a result of the Car Theft Initiative, police from around King County gather and discuss the area’s worst offenders, then compile a list of the top 10 automobile thieves. The list is distributed throughout the county, Calvo said.

It allows prosecutors to recognize if an automobile thief has committed the same crime in another city within King County. If so, the offender’s case proceedings will be rushed, in hopes that the offender will not be released from custody before the case has a chance to be presented before the court, Calvo said.

“We’ve taken the position that we are going to treat (auto thefts) as priority cases,” Calvo said.

Federal Way police efforts

The Federal Way Police Department utilizes the list. Automobile theft decreased in Federal Way for the year 2006 by about 24 percent, according to Landon’s report.

To help combat automobile theft, Federal Way residents may also report stolen or abandoned vehicles by calling (253) 835-6775 and leaving a voice recording.

Volunteers with the police department pull the information provided on tape and pass it on to the department’s traffic unit, police spokeswoman Stacy Flores said. The unit has 24 hours to investigate the report, she said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

Top five vehicles stolen in Federal Way in 2006:

Honda Accord: 182

Honda Civic: 123

Toyota Camry: 51

Acura Integra: 40

Dodge Caravan: 34

Information provided by the Federal Way Police Department based on 1,140 vehicles stolen.

In Federal Way, most vehicles were stolen between midnight and 6 a.m., according to Landon’s report. Auto theft was most common in the city on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and occurred mostly in sectors of Federal Way located near Interstate 5.

To view a copy of House Bill 1001, visit http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=1001&year=2007.

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