Senator Wiener Announces Bill to Fight Vehicle Break-in Epidemic

Senator Wiener is partnering with San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón to close loophole in the Penal Code that allows some auto burglars to escape consequences
November 26, 2018

San Francisco –  Today Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced that when the Legislature convenes on December 3, he will introduce a bill, sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, to close a loophole that hampers prosecutions for automobile break-ins. The bill is modeled on Senator Wiener’s SB 916, which he introduced in 2018, but which did not pass. Like SB 916, the bill will eliminate the requirement that to prove auto burglary, the prosecution must prove that the door to the car was locked, even if the evidence shows that the defendant bashed in a window. Instead, forcible entry will be sufficient to prove the crime.

The current requirement to prove that the car door was locked undermines efforts to prosecute auto burglary cases. For example, a burglar can simply unlock the car door after breaking the glass. Additionally, when a rental car is burglarized - a common occurrence in San Francisco - the tourist who rented the car is often gone and cannot testify that they 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 in cases where a defendant is proven to have forcibly enter a car.

San Francisco is in the midst of an auto break-in epidemic. In December 2017, 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. While 2018 has seen a drop in San Francisco auto break-ins, the number are still high, and in some neighborhoods, auto break-ins continue to increase.

“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. This loophole in the Penal Code can lead to cases being dropped or charges reduced even when the evidence of burglary is clear. Our effort to close this loophole will make our neighborhoods safer.”

“Auto burglaries are down, but there are still ways we can and must improve in order to put this epidemic behind us,” said District Attorney George Gascón. “Closing a loophole that has allowed some suspects to escape consequences is one way government can improve its response to these crimes.”

San Francisco Supervisor Vallie Brown plans to introduce a resolution at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in support of Senator Wiener’s legislation.

“Sadly, car break-ins are now endemic to California cities and we have to be smart when parking, but District 5 residents shouldn’t have to think twice anytime we consider parking along Alamo Square, no one should,” said Supervisor Vallie Brown, “We shouldn’t have to step over broken glass anytime we walk along the park. Broken glass ought to be enough to prove forced entry—that’s just common sense.”

“The San Francisco Police Department has reduced vehicle break-ins citywide by 16 percent this year and has made 31 percent more arrests and citations than 2017,” said San Francisco Police Chief William Scott. “Still, we know we have much more work ahead. The key to continued progress is collaboration with our law enforcement partners, neighborhood groups and our small businesses, coupled with smart policy. The legislation Senator Wiener is proposing will be a very useful tool to help us reduce vehicle burglaries by making it easier to successfully prosecute these crimes.”

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.

This bill will add “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. 

The legislation will be officially introduced on December 3rd when the Legislature begins the 2019-2020 legislative session.