- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2000

If your car is stolen in the District of Columbia, don't count on swift justice or any justice at all, say detectives who hunt down car thieves.
The U.S. Attorney's Office handled 1,275 cases of unauthorized use of a vehicle, as car theft is called in the District. The result: Thirteen cases were taken to trial, with 11 convictions and two acquittals.
So far this year, two of 671 cases made it to trial. Prosecutors posted one win and one loss.
In Baltimore, 90 percent of auto theft cases never went to trial last year, even though it's a port of embarkation for stolen cars to Serbia and South America, according to federal lawmen.
Up to their necks in cases of violent crime, prosecutors are reluctant to take a car-theft case to trial because many judges still view grand theft auto as a boys-will-be-boys crime, even though teen-age joy riders are being replaced by professional criminals including Russian mobsters here and abroad.
In 1994, juveniles stole 55 percent of the cars and trucks in Baltimore city and county. Last year, muscled aside by the pros, they stole only 7 percent, according to court and police records.
"Car-theft cases appear on a judge's docket alongside murder and rape cases, so judges don't take them as seriously and allow them to be bargained down to lesser charges," says Allen Woods, a Baltimore prosecutor.
Police last year recovered 15 percent to 20 percent of the 6,425 cars stolen in the District, the 9,800 heisted in Prince George's County, Md., the 2,800 stolen in Montgomery County, Md., and the estimated 1,500 stolen in Northern Virginia.
That sounds like good news for owners, but it isn't most cars are recovered in name only.
They have either been stripped of valuable parts and left for police to find and haul away, or were stolen by joy riders who vandalized the cars inside or outside or both, says Carolyn Gorman of the D.C.-based Insurance Information Institute.
If Baltimore County Police Sgt. Bob Jagoe, a member of Baltimore's Regional Auto Theft Task Force, or RATT, ever writes a book, he would call it "Crime Without Punishment." And he knows who a main character would be a thief named Stephen Hayes.
Thud that is the sound Hayes' multipage rap sheet makes when Sgt. Jagoe drops it on his desk.
Hayes was first arrested in September 1997 for carjacking and assault. Two months later he was arrested for dealing drugs. One month later, still on the street, he was arrested for the unlawful taking of a motor vehicle.
Hayes still had not served a day in jail when, in April 1998, he was again arrested for carjacking. Finally brought to court, he was convicted and served seven months for all the charges.
In January 1999, fresh out of jail, he was again arrested for and later convicted of carjacking.
One defense habitual car thieves use is what prosecutor Peter McDowell, who handles all auto-theft cases in Baltimore County, calls the "rental defense," and it's enough to make police officers laugh out loud that thieves caught behind the wheel can convince a judge they didn't steal the car they rented it from a guy named Joe on a street corner.
They don't know Joe's last name, his age, address, or where they are supposed to return the car.
Police just can't believe suspects are allowed to use the rental defense in court.
Mr. McDowell, on the other hand, loves the rental defense. It makes his work easier. "For any half-experienced attorney, it's not hard to defeat the rental defense." He said the thief's story is so easy to see through, cross-examination is a ball.
"Those cases are fun to try. These people come up with the most ridiculous excuses. It's great fun to parade around the courtroom and get convictions. I don't think I've lost one of those cases," he says.
Victims whose cases go to trial end up wishing they hadn't. The rightful owner of a stolen car takes a pounding from defense lawyers, authorities say.
"The defense attorney sits there in court and says to the judge or jury, 'How do [we] know the victim didn't give him permission to rip the ignition out of the car? How do you know he didn't have permission to break the window?' " says Sgt. Jagoe.
"And the victim thinks, 'My god, my court system has become a joke.' If I were a judge and the defense attorney said that to me, I would jump down off the bench and slug him right in the teeth," says Sgt. Jagoe.
"It's obscene what they do to victims." Mr. McDowell says.
There are several tough stolen-car laws on the books in Maryland, Virginia and the District, giving prosecutors a menu of charges to choose from, including:
Carjacking a felony that carries a sentence of up to 30 years.
c Felony theft carries up to 15 years in prison.
c Unlawful taking of a vehicle a felony that carries up to five years in prison.
But there are also misdemeanors a harried prosecutor can offer a felon in exchange for a quick guilty plea.
The plea bargain of choice in the District is malicious destruction of property, which carries a $300 fine and less than 18 months in jail.
Mr. McDowell criticized this as a "slap on the wrist."
"Not in my courthouse have we ever done that. I hope we never do. That's shameful. If that ever happens in my office, I'll resign," he said.
Investigator Herbert Newman of the Metropolitan Police Department's 6th District warns against thinking of auto theft strictly as a harmless property crime.
Follow the trail of a stolen car, he says, and you'll find drive-by shootings, drug deals and a host of other crimes in which a stolen vehicle plays a key part.
"You see a lot of career criminals that started their career stealing cars," says veteran D.C. Detective Daniel Straub of the Auto Theft Desk. "They stole one car, they stole two cars, but the penalties are minimal … [so] the life of crime becomes a very desirable one."
Prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District know this situation all too well. They recognize the need for more auto-theft prosecution in the District but say other crimes must come first.
"There were nine murders in 10 days in the District alone [this summer]; everything in this city is relative," said Dan Zachem, deputy chief of the U.S. Attorney's office.
"It's not intentionally given low priority, but we have scarce resources spread over an abundance of cases," Mr. Zachem says.
Detective Straub sympathizes, but like most police officers, he believes that cracking down on stolen autos will strike a blow against other felonies.
"You can't equate the loss of human life with the loss of property like an automobile," he said, but the courts shouldn't let car thieves off almost scot-free.
Auto theft had gotten out of control in the District in the mid-1990s, police said.
The District's stolen-car units don't get help from city politicians until congressmen or senators get their cars stolen. When former Mayor Marion Barry's car was boosted in 1997, all sorts of manpower was available to auto-theft detectives.
Three years ago, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Metropolitan Police Department forged what turned out to be a temporary stolen-car alliance.
D.C. prosecutors learned how the theft of two or three cars from the same block can destroy a neighborhood. And they learned the street lingo car thieves and dealers in stolen auto parts use.
A lot of good came out of it, says Detective Straub. "We recognized, and they recognized, that some [prosecutors] lacked the basic knowledge to prepare a good stolen auto case."
The feeling of brotherhood did not take root, however. Plans for another seminar in 1997 or 1998 never made it past the talking stage.
Mr. Zachem says his office can and would like to do better.
"There's no question that the stolen-auto problem affects everybody," he says, "specially with regard to insurance rates, other crimes and whatnot. There's no question we want to do better.''
Detective Straub believes the U.S. Attorney's Office could improve its performance by committing a full-time prosecutor to auto theft cases, as Baltimore and Baltimore County have done.
A special prosecutor would get to know the hard-core car thieves and chop-shop owners and the ins and outs of auto theft, police said.
Mr. Zachem refused to say if such an idea would get a warm welcome.
"The U.S. Attorney's Office takes under consideration all proposals made by law enforcement… . As far as an attorney specializing in auto theft, I can't comment on that," he said.
Mr. McDowell of suburban Baltimore County has earned a reputation among police officers as a one-man conviction machine.
"I wish we had a prosecutor like Pete McDowell,"said D.C. auto-theft investigator Newman of the 6th District.
Last year, Mr. McDowell took about 1,000 cases to trial and won more than 95 percent of them.
Carjackers, owners of chop shops phony garages where stolen cars are stripped of their expensive parts and resold at a huge profit and even joy riders got stiff sentences.
He put one chop-shop owner, Richard D'ascenzo, away for 45 years, which is a longer sentence than armed and violent criminals often receive in Baltimore County courts.
Mr. McDowell has put away at least 20 other car thieves for over 30 years.
Still, even the swashbuckling Mr. McDowell concedes a great many of his cases are plea-bargained and never go to trial. It is a case of knowing when to be efficient and when to go to the mat.
He became the county's dedicated auto-theft prosecutor five years ago with a state grant that created a partnership between the State's Attorney's Office and the RATT squad.
It started at the top, with Mr. McDowell's boss, State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor, who decided that more emphasis needed to be placed on auto theft. They put together a large unit of police officers to start a task force specially trained to fight car theft.
Under that same grant, prosecutor Roberta Sufkind, who did not return calls for comment, was named Baltimore City's chief auto-theft prosecutor.
Police have a very different view of what she has accomplished.
"I think it comes down to individual attitudes," said Sgt. Jagoe.
"The [Baltimore City prosecutors] are very defeatist. Once you start saying that you are not going to be able to prosecute anybody, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said.

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