With car thefts still on the rise, lawmakers propose new penalties

By: - August 5, 2022 6:59 am

Sen. Richard Codey said the leaders of car theft rings are "bold, aggressive and unafraid." (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

Two state senators are introducing legislation they say will address what authorities characterize as an alarming rise in car thefts by stiffening penalties for ringleaders who recruit minors to steal cars and imposing new consequences for repeat offenders.

“We may not get you tomorrow, damn it. But we’re coming for you,” said state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex).

Mayors, police chiefs, and county prosecutors from Essex and Morris counties detailed the brazenness of some car thieves. Not only are suspects breaking into high-end cars in people’s driveways in broad daylight, but they’ve also entered people’s homes to steal keys left by the door, even if the homes are occupied, they said. 

Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) called the rise in auto thefts a “crisis in New Jersey.” 

The state is on track to outpace all previous records of car thefts, authorities said Thursday, noting there’s also a spike in car thefts nationally. 

Last year, 14,320 vehicles were reported stolen, up 22% from 2020, according to State Police data. This year, more than 9,000 vehicles were reported stolen, with as many as 17,000 car thefts expected by the end of the year, officials said Thursday. 

The skyrocketing numbers prompted acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin to form a theft task force in April, allocate $125,000 in federal funds to get the issue under control, and once again allow police to engage in car pursuits under certain circumstances. Police pursuits were largely barred under rules that went into effect last December.

Ringleaders are recruiting minors to scout and steal cars for as much as $1,000 per vehicle because they know young people will face less time in jail, authorities said Thursday. Codey compared the car theft rings to “corporations.”

“Cars are being stolen out of backyards and driveways. Homes are being entered. Juveniles are being targeted. This is no longer about thieves hitting soft targets,” said Codey. “These new players are bold, aggressive, and unafraid.”

The new legislation would require minors convicted of stealing a vehicle to serve 60 days of community service. Repeat offenders would get a minimum of 60-day incarceration in a facility for juveniles.

The bill would add extra penalties to those who recruit minors to take part in an auto theft ring and upgrade some theft offenses from second-degree crimes to first-degree, potentially doubling prison sentences, according to a draft of the legislation.

Bucco and Codey blamed some of the rise in car thefts on bail reform, saying there have been “unintended consequences” of the “catch-and-release” system. The draft of the bill does not propose any changes to bail reform.

“That’s what this bill does — closes loopholes and addresses tactics being used by these cartels,” Bucco said. “We need to take a step back, listen to our prosecutor’s offices and see where we may need to make some corrections.”

The proposed legislation is expected to be introduced Monday. Bucco and Codey said they want it passed during the fall legislative session and believe many members from both sides of the aisle will join as co-sponsors. 

“We need to untie the hands of law enforcement so that they can pursue and capture these individuals,” Bucco said. 

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.