Senator Wiener Introduces Bill to Fight Vehicle Break-in Epidemic

January 23, 2018

Sacramento –  Today Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced a bill, sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, 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 to get into the car. Currently, proving that the defendant broke a window is often deemed insufficient. Rather, judges sometimes require the DA to show that the car door was locked, which is difficult to do since a burglar can simply unlock the car door after breaking the glass. 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.

SB 916 is co-authored by Assemblymembers David Chiu (D-San Francisco) 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. 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 Gascón are hoping to increase that number further by closing a loophole in California law that has allowed some offenders to escape consequences.

“The explosion in auto break-ins we’re experiencing is unacceptable, and we need to ensure our police and district attorneys have all the tools they need to address it,” said Senator Wiener. “When residents or visitors park their cars on the streets, they should have confidence that the car and its contents will be there when they return. Damaged cars and stolen property can significantly harm people, and shattered glass all over the ground undermines safe neighborhoods. SB 916 closes a loophole in the Penal Code that can lead to cases being dropped or charges reduced even when the evidence of burglary are clear.”

“The community’s skyrocketing number of auto break-ins are a stain on our quality of life,” said District Attorney George Gascón.  “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.

Common circumstances where it can be difficult to prove the locked component include:

·         If an offender broke a window and entered the vehicle to complete a theft and then proceeded to leave the vehicle door open or unlocked;

·         If an offender broke a window and the victim returns to their vehicle and opens the door before police take a report and establish that the vehicle was locked;

·         If an offender broke a window and the victim forgets whether they locked their door(s);

·         If an offender broke a window and the victim is unavailable to testify that their door(s) were 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 adds “or when forced entry is used” to the locked-door requirement of the auto burglary statute.  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.