Don’t lock up teens for car theft if it’s unclear they knew the car was stolen

Chicago Police investigate a violent carjacking last year in the South Loop. | Network Video Productions

Imagine borrowing a car from someone you know, or perhaps getting a ride to work from a friend. The police stop the car. They tell you that, unbeknownst to you, the car had previously been stolen. They cuff you and charge you with a Class 2 felony, regardless of whether you knew about the crime or who happened to be driving.

Sound fair?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other proponents of a bill working its way through Springfield, SB 2339, seem to think so.

OPINION

The bill’s stated intention is to deter car theft in Chicago, a very serious issue, and one that often involves teenagers. To that end the bill includes a provision allowing law enforcement to detain minors suspected in such crimes for weeks before they go to trial, pending a “psychological evaluation.”

Critics of the bill, myself included, have serious concerns about how long teenagers not convicted of any crime would be kept in detention waiting for one of our overtaxed mental health professionals to become available.

I worked in the office of the Cook County state’s attorney for 14 years before I joined the state Legislature, and in that role I worked closely with the unit responsible for motor-vehicle-related crimes. Then and now, prosecuting cases involving the possession of stolen vehicles required proving “intent” — demonstrating that the person on trial knew the car was stolen. I don’t believe that the intent requirement ever kept our office from prosecuting anyone accused of violent acts who appeared to be a threat to public safety.

It is perhaps instructive to note, by the way, that the state’s attorney’s Motor Vehicle Theft unit was funded for many years by a state grant that fell victim to the recent budget standoff.

Most car thefts involve parked and unattended vehicles, not violent seizure. Under current law, people who were not involved in the original theft may still be prosecuted for possession of a stolen motor vehicle. It is a serious offense which carries a sentence of between 3 and 7 years, and one for which passengers as well as drivers can be held liable no matter how long ago the car was stolen.

Considering the length of the sentence and how broad the liability is, it is important to establish that the defendant knew that the car was stolen. This requirement to show knowledge is not a “loophole,” as the bill’s staunchest proponents would have you believe, but rather an essential way of making sure the law is fair.

Carjacking is a very different crime, a violent and dangerous one. But the barrier to prosecuting carjacking effectively is not that so-called “loophole” in the law. It is, quite frankly, that nine out of ten carjacking offenses in Chicago never result in an arrest.

If the police do not successfully arrest the perpetrators, the State’s Attorney has no one to prosecute.

Instead of developing a strategy that could result in more arrests, the mayor and the Chicago Police Department have proposed a law that is overly broad and would result in punishing not only the person in possession of the car, but also their passengers, many of whom may not even know they are committing a crime.

The bill pending in Springfield, SB 2339, will not fix the problem it claims to address.

In the real world, it would mean more black and brown youth spending time in detention for crimes they may or may not have committed.

We have come too far on smart criminal justice reform to turn back to the unscientific “tough on crime” policies of a darker past.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Democrat, has represented the 14th district of Chicago’s North Side since April 2011.

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