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November 10, 2022

Gov. Phil Murphy proposes increased criminal penalties to reduce surge in car thefts

In April, New Jersey made a $10 million investment in license plate cameras, which officials say worked to bring down thefts by 14% since last September

In an effort to slow a surge of car thefts that are "plaguing" communities in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy put forth a series of legislative proposals aimed at increasing penalties for repeat offenders and expanding enhanced pretrial services like house arrest and location monitoring, officials said earlier this week. 

Two of the four bills proposed by Murphy have already been introduced in the state legislature, and both have bipartisan support from lawmakers. The plan builds on a $10 million investment the state made in April to install license plate camera software, which officials said brought down auto thefts by 14% from September 2021 through September 2022. 

Still, there were 14,320 vehicles stolen in 2021, 22% higher than in 2020. Though there has been progress made, Murphy hopes that the Democratic-led state legislature can support him in pushing the proposals through quickly, likening the surge in car thefts to an "epidemic" in a news conference held on Monday. 

"I am grateful for the collaborative work that has been done across government in partnership with law enforcement at the state and local levels to combat crime in our state," Murphy said. "Today's steps, which include increasing penalties for persistent auto theft offenders and criminalizing certain conduct related to auto theft tools and catalytic converters, will strengthen this administration's efforts to reverse the uptick in vehicle theft we have witnessed over the past few years." 

Murphy reminded residents to be mindful of the rise in car thefts, ensuring that they double check that their cars are locked and that their key fobs are with them, particularly if they do not have access to a closed garage. 

The four-bill plan includes establishing a statute for persistent auto theft offenders, which would give state and local prosecutors the opportunity to seek more serious consequences for people who have been repeatedly found guilty of stealing cars. 

The proposal would also make it a crime to possess or distribute auto theft tools, and would impose criminal penalties for failure to comply with certain guidelines in the sale and purchase of catalytic converters. 

Another bill would invest in enhanced pretrial services in order to reduce risk among people awaiting trial. Some examples include pretrial monitoring by law enforcement, expanding the use of house arrest with location monitoring and providing resources for mental health, housing insecurity and substance abuse. 

"Auto theft not only victimizes the owner of the vehicle, but it can also victimize the whole community," said Col. Patrick J. Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. "Stolen vehicles are often used in the commission of crimes and can be found driving recklessly on our roadways creating a dangerous environment for everyone. The support Gov. Murphy has provided with the additional resources have proven to be pivotal in our effort to combat this national issue." 

Cities and states across the country saw an increase in car thefts and carjackings at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The increase in 2020 reversed two consecutive years of auto theft declines, the organization noted in a preliminary review published in early 2021. 

The country saw 873,080 car thefts in 2020. This increased to 932,329 vehicles reported stolen in 2021. So far in 2022, the NICB found that more than 745,000 vehicles have been reported stolen, representing a 24% increase since this time in 2019. 

The organization noted earlier this month that if the trend continues, totals could exceed 1 million stolen cars for the year, surpassing pre-pandemic highs by more than 100,000 stolen vehicles. 

"The alarming increase in auto thefts threatens the property and the safety of New Jersey residents and their communities," said N.J. Sen. Nicholas Scutari. "These crimes are especially disturbing because they're so close to home. Criminals are stealing cars right out of people's driveways and garages. It's crucial we take additional steps to deter car thieves and support police departments throughout the state." 

Murphy also announced that the state's Motor Vehicle Commission will begin working to add a check mark to vehicle registration paperwork, allowing residents to "opt in" to a program that automatically permits police to track their vehicle if it is ever stolen. 

The Motor Vehicle Commission will also work on messaging to new drivers of safely handling key fobs by not leaving them inside the car or stored in their homes too close to their car.