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Toughened legal tactics driving car thefts down
Seattle Times staff reporter
After more than a decade of steadily rising vehicle thefts, Seattle-area law-enforcement officials say new enforcement strategies and more aggressive prosecution may be paying off.
Statistics compiled by Seattle police show a 21.3 percent decline in car thefts for the first four months of 2006, compared with the same period last year. Through the end of April, 2,701 cars were reported stolen in Seattle — the lowest number for that period since 2002.
Last year, 3,428 car thefts were reported in the same period, part of a record year that saw 9,558 vehicle thefts in Seattle. The Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue region ranked as the sixth-worst urban area in the country for car theft, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Authorities attribute the recent drop to a variety of efforts, including a new task force of King County prosecutors, more targeted policing and a pilot program by the Seattle city attorney's office.
A year ago, city Attorney Tom Carr began a seven-month pilot project in North Seattle to increase jail time for car thieves. Car theft in the Police Department's North Precinct — which includes all neighborhoods north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal — were treated as gross misdemeanors rather than felonies to secure at least 10 days of jail time for each offense. The cases were tried in Seattle Municipal Court, where judges were not bound by state sentencing rules.
Previously, car thieves without long criminal records were charged with felonies, but sentencing guidelines call for zero to 60 days in jail for a first offense. Even thieves convicted of multiple offenses faced little jail time because it takes seven convictions before a car thief can face a prison sentence of more than a year under sentencing rules.
"We had a guy in the North Precinct who was arrested four times in six weeks, and spent a total of one day in jail," Carr said.
Avoiding auto theft
Under the pilot program, 21 cases were prosecuted to completion, with an average sentence of more than four months. Prosecutors also filed charges against passengers in stolen cars, instead of only the driver. The pilot program ended as scheduled in December, but the King County Prosecutor's Office has adopted some of the same policies, such as holding suspects until charges are filed.
Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, said that now a special theft task force of prosecutors "rush file" charges within 72 hours, and suspects often remain in custody during that time. In the past, weeks or months could pass before charges were filed.
Seattle police also created a "top 10" list of suspects they believed were responsible for the highest number of thefts. Everyone on the first list has been sent to prison, said Satterberg said, with terms ranging from just over one year to nine years.
"We know that a small percentage of the car thieves are responsible for a huge percentage of the crimes," Satterberg said. "The other day we had one [suspect] come in who confessed to over 100 thefts."
Satterberg said the goal is to build a felony record for car thieves and increase sentences. But the office is still bound by the state sentencing guidelines, which only allow prison sentences of over a year for thieves who have at least seven convictions.
"We've been down to Olympia several times to ask for the crime to be ranked higher," he said. "But it drives [up] the state prison population," and drains resources for the state Department of Corrections.
Joe Mullin: 206-464-2761 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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