Proposed California law aims to close car break-in 'loophole'

California Connection
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) -- Across California, more and more people are coming to their cars to find someone has forced their way in and taken their belongings. Almost everyone has a car break-in story to tell.

Many people FOX40 spoke with were surprised to learn that finding the thieves isn’t the only challenge for authorities -- holding them accountable in court isn’t is as straight forward as many might think.

When it comes to stealing from cars, California law defines burglary as entering a vehicle “when the doors are locked.”

Even shattered glass isn’t definitive proof. According to the letter of the law, no locked car doors mean no burglary, which means no potential for harsher penalties.

“We have to prove the vehicle is locked to make it a felony,” Ronald Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, told FOX40.

Lawrence, who is also the chief of police in Citrus Heights, says the way the law is written does prove problematic for both police and prosecutors.

“It’s hard for us to really get them prosecuted and make sure they change their behavior and stop ripping us off,” he said.

While a person testifying that they locked their doors is sometimes proof enough, sometimes prosecutors are left to charge lesser crimes like petty theft or vandalism.

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, is trying to make it easier for police and prosecutors.

“This is really just closing a loophole that I think most people would agree is an irrational loophole,” Wiener said.

Wiener, along with Assemblyman Tyler Diep, R-Westminster, introduced a new bill that would broaden the definition of auto burglary.

Assembly Bill 1921 would create a new law that simply makes forcibly entering a vehicle to steal a crime.

“The fact is if someone is bashing the window open, I think we can infer that the car was locked and, frankly, it doesn't matter,” Wiener said. “If you forcibly break into a vehicle, that’s enough.”

Though it sounds straightforward, Wiener has tried this twice before. Despite having support from law enforcement and prosecutors, both attempts failed in the legislature.

The California Public Defender’s association called Senate Bill 23, Wiener’s 2019 effort to close the loophole, unnecessary.

“We believe that this unnecessarily creates a new offense,” longtime public defender Lesli Caldwell said. ”Most cases say that a broken window is acceptable as a sign that the doors were locked.”

SB 23 was also estimated to increase court and corrections costs by $500,000 a year statewide.

The potential for more people in jail also has gotten pushback in a legislature that is rejecting mass incarceration and trending toward keeping non-violent criminals out of jail.

“This is not about destroying peoples’ lives and sending people away for a long time," Wiener said. "A lot of times people who are doing a lot of break-ins have other issues and we can try to help them, but there has to be some accountability."

AB 1921 is set to go before the Committee on Public Safety. Action can be taken on the bill after Thursday.

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