- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Drug trafficking and a rash of juvenile joy riding have increased car thefts in the District, raising the city’s auto-theft statistics to the highest level in six years, Metropolitan Police say.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, 9,168 auto thefts were reported in the District last year, compared with 7,970 in 2001.

“Anyone that’s involved with car theft is likely to be on the fringes of other criminal activity,” said Detective Daniel Straub, head of the D.C. auto theft unit. “I’m seeing over this time, the subjects I arrested as juveniles are now professional, for-profit criminals.”

D.C. auto thefts reached a 10-year high in 1995, then decreased through 1998.

However, restless teenage thieves and the flagging economy increased the thefts from 1999 through last year. The number of thefts in 2003 is not yet available.

And the drug trade is often the root of bigger problems.

While patrolling the 6th District for stolen cars Thursday, Officer Ralph Sampson saw a man leave a black Isuzu to join a group of apparent drug dealers.

Officer Sampson checked the car’s license plate and found it was recently stolen in Prince George’s County. He called for backup, and when another officer arrived the chase began.

The officers eventually caught the suspect, but not before a bag of suspected cocaine fell from his pocket.

“Lot of crack,” Officer Sampson said as he picked up the bag.

The officers estimated that about 15 grams were in the bag, more than is common for personal use. They also found a bag full of dollar bills stuffed in the suspect’s pants.

Officer Sampson, who worked in the District’s narcotics division before joining the auto theft unit, said such an arrest was typical in that suspected car thieves are often arrested while holding drugs.

The only thing perhaps more typical is seeing the joy riding or drug-dealing car thieves right back on the streets.

“It’s hard, man,” Officer Sampson said. “We catch ‘em, we lock ‘em up. Especially if they’re juveniles, they’ll just be right back out, man.”

Detective Straub said one problem is the thieves enter a court system that does not incarcerate aggressively.

He also said demonstrating the driver stole the car or knew it was stolen is hard. And the result is a low conviction rate for adult auto thieves, said Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The problem is so bad in the 6th District, east of the Anacostia River, that police distributed a brochure last month warning car owners.

The brochure states juveniles commit about 41 percent of the local car thefts.

And a story in The Washington Post last week about the increasing car thefts also focused on teenagers and pre-teens committing many of the crimes.

“Our biggest problem now is with juveniles,” Detective Straub said.

He also thinks police do not treat car theft seriously enough.

“There’s this mentality that this is a property crime,” he said.

However, 6th District officers said they have little time to spend on car-theft calls. Almost on cue, a call about an apartment fight blared during Officer Sampson’s search of the Isuzu, recovered within a block of where 15-year-old John Johnson was run over in June by a stolen car. The spot is marked by a set of skid marks, a memorial of cards, stuffed animals, beer bottles and a litany of farewells scrawled on the street.

“That’s what these stolen autos will do, man,” Officer Sampson said.

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