There's a lot of car talk lately in the South End.
Rides have disappeared from private homes, public streets, mechanics' shops, parking garages. Thugs recently assaulted a businessman at a grocery store lot, who reportedly told his attackers, "I have a gun and am going to shoot you!" The two ran to a waiting white sedan, it sped off.
Some cars are targeted because they're easy to steal. They may end up parked elsewhere with little damage, or totaled in accidents, or rebuilt at chop shops.
Most car thieves aren't specialists. They steal cars, break into houses and vehicles. They commit identity theft with stolen ID, and crimes of opportunity. In our modern world, they're often involved with meth.
There were 8,138 auto thefts in Seattle in 2006, 1,807 fewer than in 2005.
In 2005, the law enforcement community began an interdiction campaign that tracked three-time losers with teams of plain-clothes cops and unmarked cars, responding to what the late King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng called "an epidemic rise in car theft."
In Seattle, police began keeping a regularly updated top-10 list of the most prolific auto thieves - the list now applies to the whole county. With new technology, like an automated license plate reader for patrol cars, officers can monitor traffic for stolen vehicles, comparing plates of vehicles on the road with a database of license plate numbers of known stolen vehicles. A county-wide information center in Redmond now helps coordinate field operations. Prosecutors changed their tactics, coordinating resources.
Dan Donohoe of the King County Prosecuting Attorney's office said, "Auto theft has been a priority for this department. We have established strong partnerships between our office and the Seattle City Attorney."
This past March, the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 1001. Signed on April 27 by Gov. Christine Gregoire, the revised car theft law goes into effect on July 22. Possession of "slim Jims," master or filed keys, and other tools of the trade become a gross misdemeanor. Car theft is a Class 2 or Class 3 felony, with sentencing guidelines determined by a point system. "Vehicle prowling under the new law is counted as a felony point in car thefts cases," Senior Deputy King County Prosecuting Attorney Shaya Calvo explained.
THE LAW'S LONG ARM
Here's some historical perspective: you could be hanged for stealing a horse in the 19th century.
In the 21st, a first offense teen will get five days of home detention and 45 hours of community service, or just 90 hours of community service. After a third conviction, you go to juvie, a Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration facility, or JRA.
Juvenile delinquents rip off about half of all stolen cars.
Under the revised law, after three convictions an adult will face 17-22 months of prison. Before, it took seven convictions before an adult spent a year of hard time.
But who's doing the crime, really?
"About two percent of car thieves commit over 60 percent of car thefts," Seattle Police spokesperson Sean Whitcomb said. In December, 2006, Liam Moynihan got sent to prison for nine years after admitting to stealing 136 cars over six months.
"Year to date, car theft in Seattle has decreased by 14 percent," Whitcomb noted
COME BACK TO ME
A lot of stolen vehicles do come back to their owners.
Mine did: Old Paint.
Old Paint was a '72 Datsun pickup truck. I bought it with 42,000 miles on it and a newly rebuilt engine. It had been rolled, then salvaged: Old Paint was a great truck.
The first time my truck was stolen, I recovered it on Mercer Island. The week after I reported the theft, I got a call from a cop who said my truck was next to a public access trail by I-90. Some local had written "Move It!" onto the hood with a ballpoint. The thief left a receipt from the Midway Swap Meet on the passenger side of the bench seat - flea marts are popular places to fence stolen goods.
The driver's door lock had been forced - it would only work with the key after that. The thief jammed the ignition with a tweaker, a small screwdriver. I found it under the seat when I got the Datsun back. The tweaker was from a gun shop in Arkansas.
Next time, Old Paint got clear to Tacoma. Two weeks later, a junkie was nabbed driving my truck without license plates - who knows where they went. This time the passenger door had been jimmied. When I picked my wheels up at the storage yard, I found a hypodermic syringe with needle under the seat. I installed a kill switch, a hot rod trick that stops a vehicle from starting without the switch turned on.
The last time Old Paint had a collision with the law was on Memorial Day eve. A witness told me that a mid-80s piece of Detroit iron plowed into the truck, pushing it over the curb, up on a sidewalk, twisting the frame. The insurance company couldn't save the Datsun - a check for $312 arrived in the mail, and Old Paint was towed into history.
Since, I've used a steering wheel lock on my vehicles. Someone could use a cutting torch or certain saws, or freeze it with liquid nitrogen and shatter it with a hammer. Most car thieves aren't that sophisticated, or smart. Common sense counts: lock your ride, don't hide keys on the vehicle, close windows completely, and park in well-lit places.
Another rule of the road is to keep valuables out of sight. Its corollary is not to have anything in sight. You may not be able to stop every larcenous loser from hotwiring your hybrid or forcing the lock on your SUV, but you can usually outwit them.
Still, there's only one sure-fire way to stop auto theft: don't own a car.
Beacon Hill writer and neighborhood activist Craig Thompson may be reached via email@example.com.