Police: Law encourages thieves to steal old cars

Monday, February 18, 2013 | 5:58 p.m. CST; updated 9:56 p.m. CST, Monday, February 18, 2013

ST. LOUIS — A revised law that allows the sale of older cars without a title has prompted thieves to steal them for scrap because it's more lucrative and easier than selling other metals, according to St. Louis-area police officials.

However, the lawmaker who proposed the change rejects the police complaints, saying officers in larger cities should concentrate on crimes more important than what happens to junked cars, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The revised law, which took effect in August 2012, made it legal to sell nonfunctioning vehicles 10 years or older without a title. Before, only vehicles 20 years or older could be sold for scrap without a title.

Sgt. Tom Naughton, head of the St. Louis County police auto theft unit, said thieves can get $200 to $500 per car at a time when other laws made it harder to sell stolen metals such as wire or gutters for scrap.

"There's big money in this," he said. "You can't make it harder to recycle other things and then make it easier to scrap a car. So now the copper thief is stealing cars because it's easier, and they can make more money."

Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who proposed the change, said it was intended to help rural landowners get rid of junk vehicles abandoned on their property.

"There are a lot bigger problems than over-10-year-old car thefts in the metro St. Louis area and Kansas City area, and I would have the police concentrate on some of those problems," Engler said. "But I guess they've got to blame it on something. ... They need to tighten up enforcement of the law, and they'll be fine."

Police note the increase in older auto thefts could cause an increase in insurance premiums, which are based partly on rates of auto theft and recoveries.

"This law clearly had unintended consequences, and we have to look at changing it back or finding some other solution to the matter," said St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch. "There is clearly a link between the change in law and the additional thefts. There is no other explanation for it."

St. Louis County has recorded a 37 percent increase in the thefts of older-model cars since the law took effect, compared with the same period the previous year, according to police data. The department is recovering fewer than half, down about 10 percent, while it recovers about 70 percent of newer models, the data shows.

Lt. Joe Morici, commander of the Anti-Crime and Auto Theft Unit, said Kansas City police have discussed the same problem.

The law requires the seller of a vehicle at least 10 years old to have only a photo identification to sell it for scrap, as long as it's inoperable. The scrap buyer must determine whether there is a lien and submit a bill of sale and copy of the photo ID to the Missouri Department of Revenue within 10 days.

The Department of Revenue is required to run each vehicle identification number through the Missouri State Highway Patrol's database to see if it has been reported stolen. A department spokesman said information is keyed into its system as quickly and accurately as the staff can.

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