Cracking down on car theft: Magnolia connection cited in get-tough move

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng wants to get tough on auto thieves, according to a Car Theft Initiative (CTI) he announced at a press con-ference last week. The CTI is the result of several months' work, the Magnolia resident said in a later interview.

But Maleng also said the push to crack down on car thieves was given additional impetus by a discussion he and Assistant Chief Criminal Deputy Kathy Van Olst had a couple of months ago with former Magnolia Chamber of Commerce president Dan Bartlett and current Magnolia Community Club president Vic Barry.

"Kathy and I talked to them for about an hour," Maleng said of a discussion that indicated car theft is "a huge problem" in Magnolia. The conclusion was that it was time to stop studying the CTI and implement it," he said. "It really had a big impact, that meeting with Dan and Vic."

Maleng said he's heard similar complaints from other Seattle neigh-borhoods, but the problem is espe-cially acute in Washington state. Citing statistics at the press conference, Maleng said auto thefts nationally dropped 2.6 percent from 2003 to 2004, while the rate statewide jumped 9.4 percent in the same period.

In a longer view, the rates of auto theft in the state jumped a staggering 61.5 percent between 1996 and 2004, but the rate has gone up another 15 percent in just the first five months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to Maleng's office.

The Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods have seen an even steeper increase than the state between 2003 and 2004, according to crime statistics posted on the Seattle Police Department Web site.

The crime stats are compiled for individual census tracts that divide the Queen Anne and Magnolia/Interbay neighborhoods roughly along 14th Avenue West, so the numbers are not exact.

But based on that source, the number of auto thefts in Magnolia jumped 28 percent from 155 in 2003 to 198 in 2004. Queen Anne was even worse, with a 34-percent increase from 566 in 2003 to 760 in 2004.

An accountability gap

"The vast majority of stolen cars are recovered," said SPF spokesman Sean Whitcomb. But in many cases, the vehicles are found trashed and stripped of valuables such as car stereos, according to numerous victims who have spoken to the News over the years. "It's not just a matter of inconvenience," Maleng noted.

Yet not much happens when the auto thieves are actually arrested, according to Maleng. What often occurs, he said, is that vehicle thieves are picked up and released from jail before charges have been filed. Filing charges and setting a court date can take months, he added.

Teenage vehicle thieves have even an easier time of it. "So frequently now, when a juvenile is arrested, they aren't even booked into detention," Maleng said. "So you don't have immediate consequences attached," he said for both juveniles and adult auto thieves.

Maleng would like to see that changed. One goal is to "rush-file" charges within 72 hours before offenders are released from jail or detention, he said. To do that, according to the initiative, three deputy prosecutors will be assigned to target auto thieves: one in the Kent office, one in downtown Seattle and one in Juvenile Court.

Repeat offenders would receive additional attention. "A small number of thieves are responsible for a large percentage of crimes," Maleng said in a press release. "Targeting these criminals will have a real impact on auto theft." The CTI also involves improving police investigative techniques when a suspect is caught in a stolen vehicle.

But there is a larger issue of punishment. Auto theft is a Class C felony, and adult offenders who steal and dump vehicles are charged with taking a motor vehicle without permission in the second degree, said Dan Donohoe, spokesman for the prosecutor's office.

First-time offenders face 0 to 60 days in jail, but it takes seven convictions before an adult auto thief faces some serious time, and that's only a year in prison, he said.

Penalties are generally less for juvenile offenders, but increasing the penalties for both juveniles and adults will require legislative action, Maleng concedes.

He's argued for years in Olympia that state sentencing laws are too lenient for auto thieves. "What I said was, 'Three strikes and you should go to prison,'" Maleng said.

"We're going to go just as hard and fast as we can," he said of urging the legislature in the next session to toughen up penalties for auto theft. In the meantime, Maleng added, King County needs to do everything it can its existing enforcement tools.

"Then we'll have the public behind us. The Legislature will listen to the public," he predicted. Whether that's true remains to be seen, but Maleng said he was surprised at the level of public support for the CTI.

"The phone is ringing off the hook," he said. "It has really touched a hot button."

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309. >[[In-content Ad]]