ST. LOUIS • Why are thefts of older vehicles climbing? And why are so many of them never seen again? St. Louis-area police who pondered what seemed like an improbable trend say they believe they have found the culprit — inside the Missouri statute book.
A revised law, effective Aug. 28, 2012, made it easier for thieves to sell certain cars for scrap, officials say, pushing up auto theft rates and ultimately threatening to increase insurance rates.
“This law basically opens the floodgates for all kinds of criminal activity,” complained Sgt. Tom Naughton, head of the St. Louis County police auto theft unit.
He said thieves can fetch $200 to $500 per car at a time when laws have made it harder to sell the likes of stolen wire or gutters. “There’s big money in this,” he said. “You can’t make it harder to recycle other things and then make it easier to scrap a car. So now the copper thief is stealing cars, because it’s easier and they can make more money.”
The lawmaker who inserted a clause into House Bill 1150, which made it legal to sell a nonfunctioning vehicle 10 years or older without a title, rejects the concern. The intent was to make it easier for rural landowners to dispose of derelict vehicles abandoned on their property.
“There are a lot bigger problems than over-10-year-old car thefts in the metro St. Louis area and Kansas City area, and I would have the police concentrate on some of those problems,” said Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who proposed the change as a senator. “But I guess they’ve got to blame it on something ... They need to tighten up enforcement of the law and they’ll be fine.”
Police insist it is a big problem, a crime that’s rising while most are falling. They note that insurance premiums are based partly on rates of auto theft and recoveries.
Said St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch: “This law clearly had unintended consequences, and we have to look at changing it back or finding some other solution to the matter.” He continued, “There is clearly a link between the change in law and the additional thefts. There is no other explanation for it.”
In St. Louis County alone, police have seen about a 37 percent increase in the thefts of older-model cars since the law took effect, as compared to the same period in 2011. They are recovering fewer than half, down about 10 percent. Police data show that officers recover about 70 percent of newer models.
Just last week, police from St. Louis, St. Louis County and the Metro East raided a scrap yard outside Granite City where they say cars stolen in Missouri were brought to be crushed and recycled. Evidence was seized, but no charges have been filed so far.
Before Aug. 28, only vehicles 20 or more years old could be sold for scrap in Missouri with no title.
Engler said that left property owners without ways to dispose of many of the junkers abandoned on their land. He also said that some of his constituents use inoperable vehicles to prevent erosion, and realize when they decide to sell them that they have misplaced the titles.
He said that when the bill reached the Senate Transportation Committee in May 2012, it received the blessing of the Missouri Highway Patrol.
Under the law, the seller of a vehicle at least 10 years old needs only a photo identification to sell it for scrap, as long as it’s inoperable. The scrap buyer must determine whether there is a lien, and submit a bill of sale and copy of the photo ID to the Missouri Department of Revenue within 10 days.
The Department of Revenue is supposed to run each vehicle identification number through the highway patrol’s database to see if it has been reported stolen. A spokesman said information is keyed into its system as quickly and accurately as the staff can.
Naughton said the provisions, including the 10-day requirement, are not enough: “By that time anyway, the investigation is already 10 days behind and we’re basically chasing a ghost because anybody can provide a photo ID and not really be who they say they are.”
And, he added, “What part of the law says that the scrap operator has to have some certification that a car does not run? Nobody is deeming cars inoperable except the people who want to exchange cash for it.”
Engler argued that the required identification is the same kind police routinely accept in other contexts, and he said he doubts sellers and buyers are conspiring to lie about the vehicles’ condition.
Roger Brockman, owner of Brock Auto Parts and Recycling, in Hillsdale, said he isn’t taking chances on vehicles without titles. He said he has accepted only three vehicles out of at least a dozen that people brought him fitting the new criteria. He noted that he had refused a 1991 Chevrolet Caprice with a damaged ignition and a 1995 truck that looked to be operable.
He said he sent paperwork on the three he did accept to the Department of Revenue. “I guess they got them, I didn’t get any confirmation back and I don’t know what they’re doing with them.”
Brockman said he knows there are some dealers who aren’t as picky, and now have broader latitude. “This law leaves it in limbo and makes it a judgement call. If I have bad feeling about it, then I don’t do it.”
A TASK FORCE APPROACH
In 1991, the insurance industry partnered with police and other public officials to create the Illinois Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Council. It attached a $1 fee that every full-coverage insurance policy holder in that state must pay upon policy renewal.
The fund generates about $6.5 million annually to pay for six regional police task forces. Since its inception, vehicle theft has declined by 64 percent in Illinois, according to the its annual report.
St. Clair County sheriff’s Master Sgt. Gary Brewer heads the 11-officer Metro East Auto Theft Task Force. He blamed the change in Missouri’s law for recovering about 50 fewer vehicles than usual so far.
“It’s a game, and we, the consumers, are losing,” Brewer said. “You’ve got people who are out there just scraping and supplementing their income ... And there are scrap dealers that will turn their head.”
Brewer said the crime falls harder on the poor and senior citizens, who tend to own older cars. He said they often carry only liability insurance, so a theft isn’t covered.
St. Louis police said they have seen a 37 percent increase in older-model cars taken and not recovered. Lt. Joe Morici, commander of the Anti-Crime and Auto Theft Unit, said the targets of choice are pickups and large SUVs. He said police in Kansas City have been in contact about the same problem.
Officials suspect this may be what happened in the disappearance of eight school buses, at the rate of about one a month, in late 2012. They were never seen again.
In 2011, St. Louis police reported a five-year low in auto thefts. But the crime increased by four percent last year, Morici said, adding that most of it occurring toward the end of the year.
“We need to change the law back,” he said. “People are obviously circumventing the safeguards.”
Engler said he won’t be the one to propose a revision.
“It’s not a serious problem down here,” he said, “and if that’s the biggest problem in the city of St. Louis, then I’m not watching the right news at night.”