Bill would increase penalty for car prowls

OLYMPIA — Washington law enforcement officers want the state’s help in combating increasingly skilled prowlers who are breaking into cars and stealing the contents at alarming rates.

They are pushing lawmakers to toughen penalties on serial offenders in hopes it will be a deterrent.

“Right now you get a slap on the wrist over and over and over again,” said Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, a Seattle police officer, who said car prowling is one of the most reported incidents he deals with on his job.

Police say the number of break-ins began to rise soon after lawmakers cracked down on auto thieves six years ago by imposing longer sentences on those convicted of theft multiple times.

They back a bill introduced by Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, which sailed through the Senate on a 48-0 vote Feb. 25 and is now under consideration in the House.

Harper told the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday that people quit taking the cars and started breaking into them and taking the contents,

“It is not a panacea fix to vehicle prowling,” he said. “But I do believe we’ll see a dramatic decrease.”

Senate Bill 5053 changes penalties for those convicted of vehicle prowling in the second degree, which involves breaking into a vehicle other than a motor home or boat and snatching items inside.

Today, this crime is a gross misdemeanor. A conviction can bring a possible sentence in county jail of up to 364 days and a fine of $10,000.

Harper’s bill would make vehicle prowling in the second degree a class C felony upon the third and subsequent convictions. As a felony, it would carry a sentence in jail of six to 12 months plus a fine of up to $5,000. A person with prior felony convictions could receive a longer sentence.

On Tuesday, Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick told the committee that since the law targeting auto thieves passed in 2007, auto thefts in the county dropped from 6,146 in 2006 to 2,485 in 2012. Prowling could decline as much with this bill, he said confidently.

“People will know we are serious about this,” said Lovick, who wrote the 2007 bill as a state lawmaker. “This will deter a lot of folks.”

Everett police tallied 7,000 reports of vehicle prowling between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2012, for an average of almost 6.5 a day, police Chief Kathy Atwood said. In 2010 alone, there were 2,988 reports or more than eight per day, she said.

She and Lovick said these crimes are being committed by those with increasing sophistication and organization. Some work in groups, deploying members to scout out possible targets before striking. Lovick said his office videotaped one person smash a window, grab stuff inside and run off in 15 seconds.

Bob Cooper, representing the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, opposed the bill because it ranks the new crime too high on the index used for setting sentences.

The bill proposes to treat vehicle prowling as a more serious crime than assault and hit-and-run as well as possession of a stolen vehicle, he said. Cooper suggested putting vehicle prowling on the same level as possessing a stolen auto.

The committee did not take action on the bill Tuesday.

The Senate has passed a similar bill three straight years only to see it lapse in the House.

This year could turn out differently as the chairman of the House Public Safety Committee is a supporter.

“It’s important to hold accountable people who prowl cars repeatedly. These are people who are living a criminal lifestyle,” Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said before the hearing.

Goodman said he’s encountered opposition from colleagues concerned that creating a new crime will increase costs on an overtaxed criminal justice system. A fiscal analysis of the bill predicted it will cost the state less than $50,000 a year, he said.

“This one is worthy of passage,” he said. “It’s important for my community. It’s important for Everett. It’s important for many other communities.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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