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  • Thursday, February 28, 2008 9:17am

By Rep. John Lovick

Have you had your car stolen lately? If not, there’s a good chance you know someone who has. More than 40,000 cars were stolen in Washington last year, at the rate of one every 11 minutes. In the time it takes for you to browse through this newspaper, one or two more will be pilfered.

Victims of car theft suffer both emotional trauma and economic loss. A car is often the most valuable piece of property a person owns. The average economic loss per vehicle is $6,701, according to the FBI.

I’ve had two cars stolen, and I know the sinking feeling that comes with the discovery that your car is not where you left it. But that feeling is soon replaced by outrage.

Since being elected to the legislature five years ago, I’ve funneled that outrage into constructive efforts to increase the penalties for auto theft. In 2002 we passed tougher sentencing guidelines, which are slowly starting to have an impact. That bill also allows prosecutors to differentiate between joy riders and professional car thieves.

But we need to do more. I am now working on legislation to require a mandatory minimum sentence for first-time joy riders. Though they may be sentenced to as much as 90 days in jail, at the minimum they would receive 30 days of home detention with electronic monitoring.

The Washington State Patrol and local police departments are trying new methods to catch these criminals. “Bait cars” are now being used in neighborhoods where auto theft rates are highest. The bait cars are equipped with alarms that sound at police dispatch as soon as the car is broken into. GPS equipment allows police to track the moving vehicle. Officers can also pull a switch, by remote control, which will shut off the car and lock the doors. Bait cars are now in the testing phase, and I hope to see more of them soon.

I’d like to see more money spent to catch and punish car thieves, but our state budget deficit has made it impossible to allocate extra funding for longer prison terms. Priority goes, quite rightly, to punishing those who commit violent crimes such as assault, rape or murder. Property crimes take a back seat, at least for now. As the state budget crunch eases I’ll continue to push for more prison time and increased funding to fight car theft. I believe all car thieves deserve a free ride to jail.

In the meantime, there are steps every one of us can take to protect ourselves. The simplest and most cost-effective are common sense: remove the ignition key, lock the doors, and park in a well-lit area. Car alarms and steering wheel locks also effectively thwart thieves, at a relatively low cost.

And a suggestion as winter weather sets in: resist the urge to leave your car unattended as it warms in your driveway on cold mornings. Idling cars, with keys in the ignition, are an open invitation to car thieves. They really can be “Gone in 60 Seconds” and you’ll be the victim in a real-life version of “Grand Theft Auto.”

Rep. John Lovick (D-Mill Creek) is a member of the Criminal Justice &Corrections, Judiciary, and Transportation committees. Lovick represents the 44th District, including Mill Creek, Snohomish, Lake Stevens and parts of Everett and Marysville. In addition to serving in the Legislature, Lovick is a sergeant with the Washington State Patrol.

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