Trenton – The Senate Judiciary Committee today released a host of bills aimed at confronting the growing menace of automobile thefts in New Jersey. Attacking the problem from multiple and diverse angles, members voted out legislation that ranges from increased penalties for carjacking and car theft, to upgrades in degrees of crimes, to one bill that would allow for better tracking of catalytic converters.
“Auto thefts have risen dramatically over the last several years, threatening the safety and security of our residents,” said Senator Brian Stack, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Senate Democrats have put forth a number of proposals to help stem this increase in crime. The goal of this hearing was, primarily, to take feedback from police, prosecutors, advocacy groups, local partners, and other stakeholders to understand the problem and determine the best course of action going forward. We’re determined to make our communities safe.”
“Car thefts are nothing new, but the problem has been taken to entirely new levels in recent years,” said Senate President Nick Scutari. “We are seeing things we have not seen before, with organized car theft rings, catalytic converter theft rings, criminals breaking into homes to steal fobs, and the organized use of juveniles. It is clear that more has to be done to stop this surge and protect the safety and security of our communities.”
The package of bills that passed out of committee were sponsored by a number of senators, including Senator Richard Codey, Senator Paul Sarlo, Senator Joseph Lagana, and Senator Vin Gopal.
Here is a brief summary of those measures that were advanced on Monday:
One bill, S-3006, sponsored by Senator Codey — a long-time advocate for stiffer penalties for car thieves — would increase penalties for repeat convictions of certain motor vehicle related crimes; and also increase penalties for the leader of any auto theft trafficking network that conspires with persons under the age of 17 to steal cars.
“This is not child’s play,” said Codey (D-Essex). “These are sophisticated, well-financed, well-organized business operations, more or less corporations. If we want to get serious about this we are going to have to meet them with muscle along several fronts, and not just, in many cases, merely by arresting the teen-age perpetrators who may be in service of high-level gangs.”
A second Codey sponsored bill, S-3296, would require a vehicle’s identification number to be stamped on catalytic converters of motor vehicles. Catalytic converters, which are emissions control devices, have been a primary target of auto theft rings due to the valuable metals they contain.
Two other bills, S-2283, and S-2284, sponsored by Senator Lagana and Senator Sarlo, would increase penalties for carjacking and for theft of a motor vehicle, and also upgrade motor vehicle theft to a second degree crime.
“When a person’s car is stolen, it wreaks havoc on their daily routine on top of the financial and emotional distress caused by such a personal violation. In New Jersey, the vast majority of residents depend on their cars to get back and forth to work, to get their kids to school, or to go wherever they need to be. We need to make sure would-be criminals know that the penalties will be stiff and that justice will be served,” said Senator Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic).
A separate Sarlo-Lagana bill, S-3345, would upgrade the crime for a leader of an auto theft trafficking network, while also establishing a second degree crime of participant in auto theft trafficking network.
“The rampant and widespread increase in auto thefts calls for a comprehensive plan to crack down on offenders, to help prevent thefts, and take down the criminal networks of car thieves,” said Senator Sarlo (D-Bergen). “We are working together to develop a legislative action plan on vehicle thefts. We need to protect our communities from the threat and dangers of car thefts and related crimes.”
The committee approved three other bills sponsored by Senator Gopal and Senator Lagana:
The first, S-3389, would establish crimes of theft of motor vehicle and receiving stolen motor vehicle as separate statutory provisions, and also provide extended sentences for certain persistent offenders.
The second, S-3390, would expand criminal penalties related to the illegal use of a motor vehicle master key. This bill amends current law to make it a fourth degree crime for a person to, for an unlawful purpose, knowingly possess a key fob that operates a vehicle owned by another person, or possess a computer program commonly used to start a motor vehicle without an ignition key or key fob. Such devices are becoming more common in auto thefts.
A third bill, S-3028, would increase penalties imposed on juveniles and adults convicted of motor vehicle theft and related crimes. Under the bill, a person convicted of a first offense of theft of a motor vehicle would be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of 180 days without eligibility for parole.
“Criminals are burglarizing houses for key fobs, stealing cars right out of people’s driveways, and using the vehicles to commit other crimes. Simply stated, we can’t continue to stand by and wait for things to get better,” said Senator Gopal (D-Monmouth). “This menace continues to threaten life, home, and property across our state, and places added strain on law enforcement. It’s time to act.”
All the approved bills, except for S-3296, will go to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration.