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EXCLUSIVE: Police Chief to lawmakers: Law enforcement is not enforcing [grand theft auto] as a crime

By Michael Bielawski,

Lawmakers are working on three separate bills all dealing with establishing new penalties for stealing or entering a vehicle that they do not own or have permission to use.

According to testimony to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, law enforcement may not have adequate laws on the books for officers and prosecutors to properly deal with auto thefts.

One bill is H.558, which aims to create new penalties for entering a car without the owner’s consent. Rep. Martin Lalonde, D-South Burlington, is the lead sponsor.

It states, “A person convicted under subsection (a) [aggravated operation without consent of the owner] of this section of operation without consent of the owner shall be imprisoned not more than two years or fined not more than $1,000.00, or both.”

Another bill is H.563, Rep. Thomas Burditt, R-West Rutland is the lead sponsor. This one has stronger penalties than H.558. It states, “This bill proposes to establish a five-year felony for attempted auto theft.”

The third bill is H.564, again Burditt is the lead sponsor. This deals with repeat offenders. It states it is to “expand the crime of unlawful trespass to include entering a vehicle without legal authority or the consent of the person in lawful possession and to establish a higher penalty for second and subsequent offenses for unlawful trespass in a building.”

Law enforcement sounds the alarm

In all, eight speakers were invited to the committee for testimony on Tuesday. Sheriff Mark Anderson who is president of the Vermont Sheriffs' Association was among those to speak. Anderson clarified that he is speaking as the Windham County Sheriff and not as representing the Association.

“Vermonters want people to stay out of their car,” Anderson said. “I think that’s a fairly straightforward expectation and I believe that is a desire that is currently [inhibited by] a gap in Vermont law.”

According to conversations that Anderson had with the general public, there’s a perception that “law enforcement is not enforcing this as a crime,” he said.

He said one of the guiding principles of law enforcement is that they are able to point to existing law to justify their actions, and such may not currently be the case for grand theft auto.

“Everything we train for in law enforcement is to base their work on something that we can point to,” he said.

According to the chief, car thefts are occurring in all types of Vermont neighborhoods including rural ones.

“We are seeing these types of issues in Brattleboro,” he said. “We are seeing these types of issues in communities as small as Halifax. It’s happening in my own neighborhood. So my neighbors are installing cameras and we’ll notify each other when the person is walking through a neighborhood and entering a vehicle.”

Jon Murad, chief of police for the City Of Burlington, also testified. He expressed enthusiasm for all three bills but first, he used some data to show how especially in 2022 and 2023 the frequency of car thefts reported has gone way up.

“From 2018 to 2021 we had a phenomenon that was relatively inbound, down below 50 [incidents per year] most of the time,” Murad said. "But it has absolutely taken off in the most incredible crazy way starting in 2021 and then through 2022 and 2023 and 2023 was slightly better than 2022 but not by much."

He shared a graph showing more than 300 car theft incidents for each of those two years.

The problem may be worse than what the data shows, he added that he thinks “there are probably quite a few that are not reported.”

He added that the cars on average are not being stolen to be sold. He said, “They are stealing these cars as conveyance, and/or as a place to stay, and they are using them until they are used up.”

He said in some cases the cars are simply driven until they run out of gas.

The author is a writer for the Vermont Daily Chronicle


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