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Bill would punish car theft victims

Left your car running, and a teen stole it?

Some state lawmakers think you should be criminally charged for that.

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, this week filed House Bill 927, which would make it a second-degree misdemeanor to leave your car unattended without first stopping the engine, locking the ignition and taking the key from the car. Sen. Perry Thurston Jr., D-Fort Lauderdale, filed matching Senate Bill 1112.

Under Florida statute, a second-degree misdemeanor is punishable with a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail.

"Juveniles are crashing into people, killing themselves," said Newton, a former St. Petersburg City Council member. "I look back at the beginning and say, but for the keys being left in the vehicle and this crime of opportunity prevailing itself, we wouldn't have stolen cars and these crashes."

Currently, people who leave their cars running and unattended can face a citation for a noncriminal traffic violation. That would still be the case, unless the car ended up getting stolen by a juvenile as a result — then criminal charges would come into play.

Newton said his proposal would go beyond running cars to include unlocked cars with the keys left inside, something the current statute doesn't cover. The bill exempts emergency vehicles, delivery trucks and garbage trucks.

"What I'm trying to do is close this floodgate of a crime of opportunity that is permitting these juveniles to get access to cars," Newton said. He said he did not include adult thieves as part of the bill because more thefts are committed by teens — a belief that is true locally, but not necessarily elsewhere in the state.

Pinellas County arrested juveniles 499 times for stealing cars in 2015, more than anywhere else in Florida and most places in the country. The problem was the subject of "Hot Wheels," a recent Tampa Bay Times series that found that most cars stolen by teens were left unlocked by their owners with keys inside. Reporters' analysis showed that juveniles crashed stolen cars every four days in Pinellas. Eight teen thieves have died in the last two years.

But Newton's proposal was not received well by local law enforcement.

"No," was St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway's reaction to the text of the bill. "They're already a victim, and we're going to charge you now? People won't report it, or they'll lie to us."

Clearwater police Chief Daniel Slaughter said he admired Newton's intentions, but he could not support bringing criminal charges against someone whose car was stolen.

"I don't think it would be appropriate to charge a victim for a crime," Slaughter said. "When we're trying to build trust in the community, it wouldn't really breed a culture of trust between victims and law enforcement."

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called the measure "too much government regulation and interference in regular lives."

"Where do we stop? If you leave your front door unlocked and someone breaks into your house, are you now going to be guilty of a crime?" he said.

Bernie McCabe, the state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties, said he also was wary of punishing victims. "You're not supposed to steal cars, period, whether someone left the keys in it or not," McCabe said.

Although drivers can face citations for leaving cars unlocked, that rarely happens, numbers obtained by the Times show. The St. Petersburg Police Department issued just four such citations in 2015, and 11 in 2016.

The Pinellas County's Sheriff's Office issued seven in each of those years.

"It's most definitely not a priority," said Gualtieri, adding officers were more likely to let a driver off with a warning over a running car unless the situation was egregious. "Are you just running in to the gas station, or are you taking your time, strolling the aisles at the Stop 'n Save?"

Bob Dillinger, the public defender for Pinellas and Pasco, said he would rather see more communication to the public about the need to secure their cars, rather than criminal charges: "We need to educate the public to lock their cars, particularly if they've left a gun in it."

Newton is being challenged for his District 70 seat by Vito Sheeley, a political consultant who said he was vehemently against Newton's bill. He called it "just crazy" to penalize victims.

"This is one of the worst ideas I've ever heard out of Wengay Newton, and that's saying a lot," Sheeley said in a statement.

Newton angrily disagreed with his critics, saying that people only become victims if they chose to leave their cars unlocked or running. "A victim — the way I see it — is (when) someone comes up with a gun in your face and takes your keys and takes your car," the representative said.

Otherwise, "You have to make yourself a victim by creating this crime of opportunity for young people."

Law-abiding citizens secure their cars, Newton continued, citing current statute.

"If you keep your keys in your pocket, when you go outside there's a good chance your car will be where you left it," he said. "Lock your car, lock your car, lock your car. If you do that, how the hell will you become a victim?

"Instead of being an auto-theft bill, this should be called a commonsense bill."

Contact Lisa Gartner at Follow @lisagartner. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at Follow @zacksampson.