Saturday, February 09, 2013 12:14 AM
Bills aimed at car theft, domestic violence, B & Es
By Jon Jimison | Times Editor
From breaking and entering to chop shops to domestic violence, North Carolina law enforcement stands to get a boost from three bills proposed by a longtime Cleveland County lawmaker.
Rep. Tim Moore, a Republican, filed two bills aimed at strengthening North Carolina property crime laws and another that addresses domestic violence.
One measure would increase the penalties for stealing vehicles and stripping them for parts, known as chop-shop activity.
The bill was filed at law enforcement agencies’ request.
"It’s an effort to curtail this,” said Moore, a six-term lawmaker from western North Carolina’s District 111.
A person found guilty would receive a more severe Class G felony sentence rather than the penalty for a Class H felony.
The proposed law would also assist law enforcement in the investigation of organized criminal activity associated with car thefts.
The law targets those found guilty of altering, destroying, disassembling, dismantling, reassembling or storing any motor vehicle or motor vehicle part the person knows or has reasonable grounds to believe to be illegally obtained by theft, fraud or other illegal means, according to the bill.
It also increases penalties for those who permit a place to be used for such activities.
The bill removes the requirement that a person knowingly engage in the illegal activity, instead making a person guilty if the person knows or has reasonable grounds to believe that there is an illegal component to the activity, the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association points out.
The charge for secondary metal recyclers who fail to keep proper records for cars would increase from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Secondary recyclers were able to work without a certificate of title if the car was 10 years old. The bill would increase that to 20 years.
Officials hope to build support for this bill, and Moore said changes will likely be made to the bill before it’s taken up in committee with respect to metal companies. He wants to address any concerns they might have so it can move forward.
"Most of these businesses do exactly what they are supposed to do,” Moore said. "I want to make sure that what we do doesn’t hurt or encumber. That’s what I am trying to work on.”
The bill was referred to the House Committee on Judiciary Subcommittee C.
"The average person making $25,000 a year is going to be driving an older car,” Cleveland County Sheriff’s Detective Micah Sturgis said. "One of the things we wanted to do was to change that aspect of the law because they drive off, take it to the scrap yard and scrap it right then. We had a lot of scrap yards in Cleveland County at the time.”
Officials did a lot of research and found the average car in North Carolina was more than 10 years old, he said.
"We wanted to protect the average North Carolinian who can’t always afford a new car,” Sturgis said.
"We did a lot of sting operations,” Sturgis said. "We were noticing a lot of these metal recycling groups were keeping the bare minimum details on these vehicles and they were already crushed. If you are going to operate a business in North Carolina, we want you to operate a good business. Don’t shortchange the residents of North Carolina.”
Sturgis believes this proposal gives the law a little more teeth.
CHOP SHOP ACTIVITY
The issue started in 2008 and Sturgis became involved in 2009 and 2010.
"The whole reason Cleveland County got involved is we were the hub of the chop shop activity,” Sturgis said. "We had fewer victims, but a lot of the stolen merchandise was ending up here.”
But there were plenty of victims elsewhere, from major metro areas in North Carolina to as far away as Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Specifically, law enforcement was having an issue with Hondas and Acuras model years 1992 to 2002. They were stolen, often in Mecklenburg County, and taken to chop shops, often in Cleveland County, where they were quickly torn apart and the stolen car parts were sold across the state, even online, according to Sturgis.
Meanwhile, even in Cleveland County, authorities were seeing an influx of souped-up Hondas and getting complaints when they were stolen.
"I’m spending all my money on my vehicles and we’re getting our vehicles stolen,” was a common refrain sheriff’s deputies would hear, Sturgis said. "We got a lot of help from the Honda and Accura community.”
A big break in the case came when the frame of a Honda surfaced in a South Carolina creek near York County.
Detectives, including several from Cleveland and Mecklenburg counties, went down to South Carolina.
"An individual was arrested and he began spilling his guts and he actually named numerous individuals and locations of chop shops in the Gaston and Cleveland County areas,” Sturgis said. "He rolled on everyone. At the time, he was trying to work something out.”
Once detectives got the locations of all the chop shops, they realized all except four or five were in Cleveland County.
"Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, Mecklenburg, Gaston County police, and Gastonia, DMV, National Insurance Crime Bureau, all of us got together, shut down 10 or 12 chop shops that day,” Sturgis said.
That was in January 2010. There was also law enforcement activity shutting down chop shops in the spring of 2008.
All of them were in eastern Cleveland County and western Gaston County.
Sturgis noted that Gaston County was having problems with the chop shop statute, particularly the portion on whether or not a defendant knowingly possessed the stolen goods.
"We are having a hard time prosecuting because of ‘knowingly,’” Sturgis said. "They can say all day long, ‘I don’t have knowledge it was stolen.’”
That explains a portion of the proposed change in the law.
"If I sell you a $20,000 boat for $1,000, common sense should tell you it’s stolen,” Sturgis said. "Common sense should play into that it’s probably stolen.”
That’s part of what sparked the interest in changing these laws, to protect the victims and eliminate any potential loopholes, he said.
Cleveland County and other law enforcement agencies even sent representatives to Raleigh over these proposals.
Wilson County Sheriff Calvin Woodard has said thieves will steal vehicles, sometimes from the side of the road, crush them down and sell the scrap metal from them.
Metal theft and sales are a multi-million dollar business, Woodard has said. And while some sales might be legitimate, many are not.
The city of Wilson had 111 vehicle thefts last year, according to Police Sgt. John Slaughter.
BREAKING AND ENTERING
Moore also seeks to modify the state’s breaking and entering laws.
Any person who breaks or enters any building with the intent to terrorize or injure an occupant of the building would be guilty of a Class H felony, according to the proposed bill.
"This is designed for when someone breaks in with the intent to assault or terrorize,” Moore said. "Right now it’s a misdemeanor. This would make it a felony.”
The bill passed the House Committee on Judiciary Subcommittee C and could be taken up by the full House as soon as next week.
This legislation really gets into the area of domestic violence, according to Moore, such as stalking where the perpetrator knows the victim.
"If you have been in a situation where you have been in fear for your life and you don’t know what their intentions are,” said Lynne White, executive director of the Wesley Shelter in Wilson, "it goes back to power and control.”
Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell requested the bill.
"He had seen several domestic violence issues, cases where it was only a misdemeanor, but it honestly terrorized the victim,” Moore said.
This is a case where state law catches up. It’s a felony to break in and steal, but not one to break in with intent to terrorize, Moore noted.
He said that it goes back to the Latin term "mens rea,” which means the state of mind is guilty, the purpose is wrongful.
"There’s a higher criminal intent when someone breaks in,” Moore said. "It’s not impulsive; you go to the trouble to break into a home to assault.”
George H. Erwin Jr., executive director of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, is one of the state’s strongest advocates for tougher breaking and entering laws.
Erwin has argued that property crimes are actually crimes against a person and, as such, should be classified as violent crimes. They have a violent psychological effect on victims, a scarring effect, he said.
Moore pointed out this bill will have a fiscal note attached.
The note itself says the bill may have a fiscal impact. "However, the Fiscal Research Division cannot estimate the cost of this bill because we cannot estimate how many people may be charged with this crime,” according to state documents.
Statewide in 2011, burglaries fell just 0.9 percent and larcenies increased 0.4 percent. Motor vehicle thefts decreased 8 percent. Overall, the property crime rate was flat at a 0.5 percent decrease.
Moore has introduced a third law-and-order bill, the second aimed at domestic violence.
House Bill 24 would require that a district attorney be notified when a person on either supervised or unsupervised probation has been discharged from a court-ordered domestic violence abuser treatment program for failure to comply with the terms of the program.
This legislation modifies last year’s bill that addressed the same issues, according to Moore. It changes how the courts and district attorneys are notified.
Last year, House Bill 176 was signed by the governor following bipartisan support. Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, was one of the primary sponsors. It provided for review of a defendant’s participation in a court-ordered abuser treatment program as recommended by the joint legislative committee on domestic violence. It also expanded the type of offenses reported by the clerk.
Domestic violence prevention advocates said improved notification is important.
"So many people participate in programs and there is no monitoring,” said White.
"We won’t be notified now unless there is an egregious danger to our client. Now there will be that oversight.”
White said she’s pleased to see the potential for those programs to become more accountable.
"Our concern is because we see repeat offenders,” White said. "Domestic violence is a learned behavior. It is about control. They most likely will continue this in their next relationship. We have seen people leave a program and come out better. An abuser treatment program is vital to reduce recurrence.”
But it won’t stop it all, White pointed out.
Wilson had a program that closed in December 2011. However, a new program, Redesigning Life, has emerged.
The Wesley Shelter serves the victims of domestic violence, not the abusers.
These abuser treatment programs must be used, White said. "We hope to continue to stop this cycle.” White said.
"It’s not anger management,” she said. "It’s true abuser treatment program, including self-awareness, communication, conflict resolution and building healthy relationships.”
Another issue of concern is mandatory training for law enforcement, clerks and magistrates in domestic violence.
White notes that these partners work very well with the Wesley Shelter, but improvements are always possible.
Victim advocates have seen dual arrests when a victim will call for help, she notes, and both are taken before a magistrate to figure out.
Figuring out the true aggressor and the true victim can be daunting, but it’s possible, she said.
"It takes times,” White said. "There is work to be done. Many don’t understand the factors that lead many women back into an abusive relationship.”
Domestic violence affects the entire family, Farmer-Butterfield said.
"Victims are men and women,” Farmer-Butterfield said. "I think we need to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering. People need to be accountable for their actions.”
She served on the joint legislative committee on domestic violence for many years.
"People die as a result of domestic violence,” Farmer-Butterfield said. "We must stop this vicious cycle. We have some excellent programs that concentrate on the victims. We must also put time and energy on how to prevent it from happening.”
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