A package of bills aimed a countering the recent surge of auto thefts and related crimes in New Jersey took another step closer to becoming law following approval by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
The bipartisan bills, first introduced last summer, target a range of criminal activities, including auto theft networks, the use of juveniles by ringleaders, home burglaries, and the use of so-called “master keys” to steal vehicles.
“The surge in auto-thefts over the past two years threatens the property and safety of New Jersey residents and places an added strain on law enforcement,” Democratic Senator Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) said in a statement.
“It’s crucial we take decisive and creative action to deter car thieves while also providing additional support to the law enforcement departments and our prosecutors’ offices who are already working hard to curb this disturbing trend.”
In Lakewood, where car thefts also remain a persistent issue, the Township Committee also introduced legislation last month to increase penalties for car thefts.
“We have to let folks know that it’s not a minor thing to steal someone’s car,” Mayor Ray Coles told TLS.
Just last week, dozens of vehicles were burglarized and at least three were stolen in one night in Lakewood.
The bills approved by the budget committee on Monday included one that would establish separate statutory provisions for the existing crimes of theft of a motor vehicle and knowingly receiving stolen property that is a motor vehicle, and provide for extended sentences for certain persistent offenders.
Based on State Police testimony given at a hearing in the State Assembly, advocates argue that the separate statutory provision for motor vehicle thefts and the ability for prosecutors to pursue extended terms of imprisonment for repeat offenders would greatly assist prosecutors and law enforcement in responding to the increase in auto thefts across the State.
Another bill approved by the committee would establish the crimes of participant in an auto theft trafficking network and persistent auto theft trafficking offender, and upgrade auto theft trafficking crimes that involve a juvenile.
Under this bill, a recruiter in an auto theft trafficking network would also be considered a leader of the network.
It would upgrade the crime of leader of an auto theft trafficking network to a crime of the first degree, if, in the course of network’s conduct, the leader uses, solicits, directs, hires, employs, or recruits a person 17 years of age or younger to actively participate in the network.
A third bill would expand criminal penalties related to illegal use of a motor vehicle “master key.”
This bill amends current law to make it a fourth degree crime for a person to knowingly possess for an unlawful purpose a key fob that operates a vehicle owned by another person or possess a computer program commonly used to start a motor vehicle without an ignition key or key fob.
And lastly, a fourth bill, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would upgrade the crime of burglary of a residence to a crime of the second degree.
This bill responds to the increasing reports of thieves breaking into residences to steal keys and key fobs in order to steal cars.
New Jersey saw a 22% increase in car thefts in 2021, and in 2022, the New Jersey State Police estimated that about 15,644 cars were stolen.
The problem is not unique to New Jersey, with auto thefts up 17% nationally.
Earlier this year, the Murphy administration announced a policy reversal, allowing police to pursue stolen vehicles.