Senator Wiener’s Bill to Fight Vehicle Break-in Epidemic Passed by Senate Public Safety Committee

SB 916 – sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascòn – closes a loophole in the Penal Code that allows some auto burglars to escape consequences
March 20, 2018

Sacramento –  Today the Senate Public Safety Committee passed a bill authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) to close a loophole that hampers prosecutions for automobile break-ins. Senate Bill 916 allows prosecutors to prove that a defendant committed an auto burglary by showing that he or she broke a car window with the intent to commit theft.  It was passed with bipartisan support in the Senate Public Safety Committee, and now moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Currently, proving that the defendant broke a window is often deemed insufficient in auto break-in prosecutions. Rather, judges sometimes require the DA to show that the car door was locked, often requires that the victim of the auto break-in come to court and testify that they locked the door of the car. Moreover, when a rental car is burglarized - a common occurrence in San Francisco - the tourist is often gone and cannot testify that he or she locked the car door. Allowing proof that the defendant shattered a car window to substitute for proving that the car door was locked will make it easier to enforce the law.

“Auto burglary is out of control in San Francisco and other cities, and our law enforcement needs better tools to hold people accountable who commit these thefts,” said Senator Wiener. “When a burglar shatters a car window, their guilt shouldn’t require proof that a car door was locked. Residents and visitors to our cities are fed up with the constant pools of broken glass and the violation and loss that comes with these break-ins. We all need to do more to address auto break-ins, and this bill can help fix one crucial loophole in the law. ”

SB 916 is sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascòn, and supported by the California Hotel & Lodging Association, the California Travel Association, SF Travel and others. It is supported by principal co-author Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), as well as co-authors Assemblymembers Sabrina Cervantes (D-Riverside), David Chiu (D-San Francisco), Freddie Rodriguez (D-Chino), and Phil Ting (D-San Francisco).

San Francisco is in the midst of an auto break-in epidemic. In December, the San Francisco Police Department reported that larceny theft from vehicles had increased by 26% over the past year, and previous reports indicated that auto break-ins have tripled since 2010. Despite a recent report that there is a recent dip in break-ins that last two months, there trend is up and still at astronomical levels. Although break-ins have increased dramatically, the arrest rate has dropped to 1.6 percent. While prosecutors take action in over 80% of cases presented, Senator Wiener and DA Gascòn are hoping to increase that number further by closing a loophole in California law that has allowed some offenders to escape consequences.

“The community’s skyrocketing number of auto break-ins are a stain on our quality of life,” said District Attorney George Gascòn.  “For visitors it can ruin a vacation to our amazing city and make people less likely to want to return in the future. This legislation will close a loophole that has allowed some suspects to escape consequences, and there are additional efforts underway that will give San Franciscans needed relief from the frustration and broken glass that has defined the city’s epidemic of auto break-ins.”

Under current law, to secure a conviction when an auto burglar is arrested, one of the elements prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that the vehicle was locked.  Unfortunately, the fact that a victim’s window is broken does not, by itself, establish that the vehicle was locked.   Burglars can simply unlock the car doors after breaking the window and create contradictory evidence about whether the vehicle was locked. In addition, because victims are often asked to testify that their vehicle was locked and because a disproportionate number of victims are tourists driving rental cars, the prosecution is at times unable to secure the victim’s testimony (since they live elsewhere) about the door being locked.

Given the locked-door requirement, a number of auto burglary cases with clear evidence that the defendant broke the car’s window are nevertheless dismissed.

SB 916 will expand the locked door requirement with language that says anyone who forcibly enters a vehicle with the intent to commit theft is guilty of unlawful entry of a vehicle. This means that prosecutors can prove an auto burglary occurred by either showing that the car was locked or, alternatively, that a window was broken.