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Car burglaries in some California cities are at crisis levels. Prosecutors say their hands are tied

Parked cars
A wave of car break-ins in California has one state lawmaker wanting to crack down.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

An epidemic of car burglaries in San Francisco over the last few years has led one Democratic lawmaker to propose plugging a loophole in state law that allows some break-ins to go unpunished, but the Legislature has balked at prosecutors’ requests to make obtaining convictions easier.

The proposal, which would eliminate a requirement that prosecutors prove a car’s doors were locked at the time of a break-in, has been shelved two years in a row in legislative committees. Lawmakers struggling with prison crowding and public pressure to enact criminal justice reform have been reluctant to do anything to put more people behind bars.

But local officials and the legislator behind the bill say the legislation is needed to help chip away at a statewide car burglary problem that they believe has reached crisis levels in some cities.

“It’s ridiculous that under current law you can have a video of someone bashing out a car window, but if you can’t prove that the door is locked you may not be able to get an auto burglary conviction,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who introduced the legislation at the request of the San Francisco district attorney’s office.

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Across California, there were 243,000 thefts from automobiles last year. Though the number of car break-ins was higher during the peak year of 2017, last year’s statewide number is well above the annual average of 223,000 for the eight previous years. San Francisco saw car burglaries spike by 24% from 2016 to 2017. While they dropped 13% last year and 4% so far this year, the numbers remain on track to be higher than pre-2017 tallies unless more is done, officials say.

Other Bay Area cities have experienced similar increases in recent years. From 2016 to 2018, San Jose experienced a 20% increase in car break-ins, according to a recent report by the San Jose Mercury News.

The urgency of the issue was highlighted in October when San Francisco interim Dist. Atty. Suzy Loftus announced the creation of a car burglary strike team led by her office, the California Highway Patrol and San Francisco Police Department. Operation Tangled Web is using air support and patrols to focus on residential hot spots and small commercial corridors during the holiday season, while also targeting fencing of goods stolen from automobiles, officials said.

“With approximately 70 auto burglaries a day [in San Francisco], these collective efforts are important in order to tackle this crisis head on,” said Loftus, who leaves office in January.

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Wiener said the loophole in state law that his bill targets has hindered prosecutions in San Francisco, where many car burglary victims are tourists who cannot easily return to testify that they left their car doors locked.

George Gascon, who stepped down as San Francisco‘s top prosecutor in October to run for Los Angeles County district attorney, said the problem led him to ask Wiener to pursue the legislation.

“I was disappointed that legislators chose to kill a bill that would have closed a loophole that disproportionately impacts one class of victim,” said Gascon, who hopes legislators will again take up the proposal when they reconvene in January. “Tourists are disproportionately targeted because they are more likely to have valuables in their cars, and this loophole means justice may not be applied equally.”

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, whom Gascon is challenging in the 2020 election, said that while her office has not seen the same surge in car burglaries this year as in San Francisco, “We do share the frustration of having to prove a vehicle was locked as a factor in determining whether the entry was illegal.”

Los Angeles saw a 14.3% increase in thefts from vehicles from 2015 to 2017. So far this year numbers are down 6.7% compared to the same period in 2017.

Wiener said he was never given an explanation by colleagues who decided to hold the bills in committee, but he said lawmakers have generally been reluctant to approve any measure that has the potential to put more people behind bars. The solidly liberal California Legislature has tried to address prison overcrowding in the last decade by reducing the penalties for many crimes and blocking bills that might increase the number of people going to jail or prison.

“Bills that are perceived to expand criminal liability tend not to do well in the Legislature, although this bill closes a loophole — it’s not creating something new,” Wiener said.

The legislation was opposed by the California Public Defenders Assn., which tied the issue to the rise of homelessness in major California cities.

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“In an era where our streets are filled with homeless people looking for shelter from the elements this expansion of the prosecution and incarceration time for individuals who have not damaged a locking mechanism of the vehicle to gain entry could negatively impact those with the least of means,” the public defenders said in a letter to lawmakers.

Chesa Boudin, who won the Nov. 8 election against Loftus after serving as a San Francisco deputy public defender, did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.

Assembly Republican leader Marie Waldron of Escondido said the demise of the legislation this year is just the latest in a series of actions by Democratic lawmakers that hamper law enforcement efforts to stop criminals.

“We’ve got one more piece of evidence that for Democrats, victims come last,” Waldron said. “There’s no reason for someone to enter a vehicle that doesn’t belong to them, whether the door is locked or not. This was a common-sense bill to close a major loophole in our car burglary law, but Democrats have proved yet again that in Sacramento, common sense isn’t common.”

A study last year by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California said it found evidence that the 2014 passage of Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for some low-level property crimes, contributed to an increase in some crimes, including thefts from motor vehicles.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), the chairwoman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, declined to discuss Wiener’s bill when asked why her committee shelved it, saying in a statement that costs are always a concern with proposed new laws.

“With billions of dollars of new taxpayer costs being proposed through new legislation every year, the Appropriations Committee considers the merits of hundreds of bills before making very hard decisions about the fiscal priorities of our state,” Gonzalez said.

Number-crunchers for Gonzalez’s committee estimated the bill would have cost courts “hundreds of thousands” of dollars for more prosecutions, while counties might face up to the “low millions” of dollars in expenses to handle increased jail populations.

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California’s auto burglary problem received national attention in August when former Yankees baseball player Alex Rodriguez suffered a break-in to his rental car in San Francisco, resulting in the theft of an estimated $500,000 worth of electronics and jewelry. That case is still under investigation and no arrests have been made, police say.

In another high-profile case this year, authorities broke up a car burglary ring comprising dozens of Chilean nationals who entered the country on tourist visas and ransacked scores of cars, homes and businesses in Southern California.

Wiener said the issue is not going away.

“I think we will get it passed eventually,” Wiener said of the legislation. “It’s still a problem.”


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