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Spokane considers new misdemeanor penalty to combat car theft

UPDATED: Mon., March 6, 2017, 10:56 p.m.

FILE - Spokane Police patrol car. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Spokane Police patrol car. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Entering a car or a truck without the owner’s permission would become a criminal offense in Spokane under a new law the City Council will consider this month.

Police could detain or cite a person with “vehicle trespass” for unlawfully entering or remaining inside a car they don’t own, and the misdemeanor could land the offender in jail for up to 90 days or involve a $1,000 fine.

The law gives police an additional way to target repeat property crime offenders following an uptick in vehicle theft in Spokane, said City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who forwarded the proposal to the full council for a vote.

“I really think we have to close all the loopholes we can on this, and leave no stone unturned,” Kinnear said.

Trespassing in a vehicle would be a step below vehicle prowling, which is the current go-to criminal charge officers employ when encountering suspects in automobile-related property crime, said Spokane police Assistant Chief Justin Lundgren.

“It’s really hard to catch vehicle prowlers, or vehicle thieves, in the act,” Lundgren said.

A prowling conviction requires proving the offender entered the car with criminal intent, something that’s difficult to do if there’s no damage to the vehicle or clear attempt to steal what’s inside, Lundgren said.

Kinnear said her goal is to ensure officers have “all the tools they need” to combat Spokane’s car theft problem, which saw a 20 percent jump in 2016, according to figures provided by the police department in support of a proposed pilot program mandating community custody for chronic car thieves in the city. The state House of Representatives considered approving the project, which would allow for pilots in Spokane County and Federal Way, but the bill did not make it out of the Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane and head of the Appropriations Committee, said the proposal could be revived as part of the state’s budget process, which could last into the summer months. The program would cost $1.2 million through 2023, according to an estimate prepared by the state’s Office of Financial Management.

The pilot project, proposed by Ormsby and fellow Spokane Democrat Rep. Marcus Riccelli, would reinstate community custody for offenders convicted of felony car theft and possession of a stolen vehicle crimes for up to a year. The state ended community custody for property crimes in 2007 as part of cost-saving measures.

City Councilman Breean Beggs said without the state’s promise of community custody for felony offenders, Kinnear’s suggestion of a new misdemeanor for vehicle trespassing provided a means for law enforcement to detain and direct low-level offenders to services, such as drug treatment and job training, before they’re convicted of felonies.

“It’s kind of a smart justice initiative, if it’s used that way,” Beggs said.

Reforms to the county’s criminal justice system aim to remove misdemeanor-level and nonviolent offenders from the aging Spokane County Jail, which supporters say should prioritize violent and chronic offenders.

Spokane’s vehicle trespass misdemeanor would target anyone who “knowingly enters or remains unlawfully in a vehicle belonging to another.” Washington state law prohibits criminal trespass “in a building” and “in or upon premises of another.” Kinnear’s ordinance was screened by a legal team including the council’s policy adviser and city attorneys, she said.

The city of Delaware, Ohio, with a population of roughly 36,000, has a similar measure on the books already. The law there provides a written defense for suspects facing a vehicle trespass charge; they can beat it by proving they could have reasonably believed they had permission to be in the vehicle or show that it was provided by the owner.

The City Council is scheduled to consider the proposed ordinance at its regularly scheduled meeting at 6 p.m. March 13 at City Hall.


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