Car Burglary Epidemic in Some Cities Prompts Renewed Calls for Legislative Fix

December 4, 2019 Updated: December 4, 2019

A dramatic rise in car burglaries in San Francisco and other California cities in recent years has renewed calls for legislation to close a legal loophole that makes it difficult to prosecute thieves.

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has been championing the cause for nearly two years. He introduced Senate Bill 23, sponsored by then-San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, in December 2018, but the bill was later shelved.

The legislation is similar to Wiener’s unsuccessful Senate Bill 916 introduced in January 2018. A similar bill, Assembly Bill 476, also failed passage in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety back in 1997.

Weiner’s bills attempted to eliminate the requirement that to prove auto burglary, the prosecution must prove the door of the vehicle was locked, even if evidence showed the defendant smashed a window to enter the vehicle, according to Weiner. Instead, evidence of forcible entry would be enough to prove the crime.

“I was disappointed that legislators chose to kill a bill that would have closed a loophole that disproportionately impacts one class of victim,” Gascón recently told the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

He said he hoped state legislators will re-consider the proposal next year.

State Assembly Republican leader Marie Waldron from Escondido told the newspaper that supporting Weiner’s bill was “common sense.”

“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,” Waldron told the news outlet.

The current requirement to prove that the car door was locked undermines efforts to prosecute auto burglary cases, said Wiener. For example, a burglar can simply unlock the car door after breaking the glass. In addition, when a rental car is burglarized—a common occurrence in San Francisco—the tourist who rented the car often returns home and cannot testify that the car door was locked.

“The explosion in auto break-ins we’re experiencing is unacceptable, and we need to ensure our police and district attorneys have all the tools they need to address it,” Wiener said in a November 2018 media release.

“When residents or visitors park their cars on the streets, they should have confidence that the car and its contents will be there when they return. Damaged cars and stolen property can significantly harm people, and shattered glass all over the ground undermines safe neighborhoods. This loophole in the Penal Code can lead to cases being dropped or charges reduced even when the evidence of burglary is clear.”

In December 2017, the San Francisco Police Department reported that larceny theft from vehicles had risen by 26 percent from the previous year, and earlier reports showed that vehicle break-ins tripled since 2010. In 2018, there was drop in auto break-ins, but incidents are still high and continue to increase in some neighborhoods, according to the release.

“The legislation Senator Wiener is proposing will be a very useful tool to help us reduce vehicle burglaries by making it easier to successfully prosecute these crimes,” San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said in the release.

San Francisco County Supervisor Vallie Brown also showed support for Senator Wiener’s legislation, according to the release.

“Sadly, car break-ins are now endemic to California cities and we have to be smart when parking, but District 5 residents shouldn’t have to think twice anytime we consider parking along Alamo Square, no one should,” Brown said. “We shouldn’t have to step over broken glass anytime we walk along the park. Broken glass ought to be enough to prove forced entry—that’s just common sense.”

However, the issue of prosecuting suspected criminals for vehicle break-ins may have less to do with serving justice and more to do with concerns about prison overcrowding, according to bill analyses of SB 23.

“California is subject to a federal court order to reduce its in-state adult institution population to 137.5 percent of design capacity,” read the bill analysis by the Senate Committee on Appropriations. “By potentially increasing the inmate population in in-state institutions, this bill could make it more difficult for the state to comply with the court order.”

This 2009 federal court order was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2011. As of Nov. 27, the state’s prison population was 131.5 percent, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

In a statement opposing the bill included in the bill analysis by the Assembly Committee on Appropriations, the California Public Defenders Association said, “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.”

Proposition 47, passed in 2014, reduced penalties for some low-level property crimes and contributed to an increase in thefts from vehicles, according to a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) report released last year (pdf).

From 2016 to 2017, car burglaries in San Francisco jumped 24 percent. In 2018, they dropped 13 percent. Statewide, there were 243,000 thefts from vehicles last year, well above the annual average of 223,000 for the previous eight years.