Dear Assemblymember Ting,
I write on behalf of Stop Crime SF, an anti-crime group representing thousands of San Franciscans, primarily on the Westside. Our membership includes hundreds of individual members, as well as seven neighborhood associations frustrated by serial crime in the City.
At your West Portal Elementary School town hall coffee recently, you appeared to indicate that while you do not favor repealing Prop. 47, you are interested in closing loopholes that make it easier for burglars to keep breaking into cars. Further, you said you would consider legislation to further this goal. We promised to get back to you on these issues, which is the purpose of this letter.
Under current law breaking and entering into a vehicle typically meets with little or no penalty. For an auto burglary conviction, intent to steal must be proven. Because in practice this means that an eye witness is needed to make an arrest and that significant valuables must be stolen, fewer than two percent of burglaries result in charges (and just a fraction of one percent result in convictions).
Furthermore, in most cases the stolen property must be valued at $950 or more.Otherwise, even when caught in the act, the offense is classified as a “wobbler” (chargeable as either a misdemeanor or felony) and likely will not be charged as a felony unless there are multiple/repeat offenses. Notably, shattering a window does not count in assessing the value of stolen property. So when Supervisor Norman Yee’s legislative aide recently had her car broken into, the $800 cost of her SUV window replacement would not have entered into the penalty assessment. Ditto for Board President London Breed’s broken window, because neither vehicle had valuables in sight. (In these cases, there were no arrests anyway).
We ask you to do two things:
1. Sponsor legislation that makes breaking and entering into a vehicle without a legitimate purpose eligible for a felony charge as a burglary. Demonstrating intent to commit another felony or theft should not be required for conviction. Likewise, the specific value of any item stolen or intended to be stolen should not be a requirement for conviction. Currently, tampering with a vehicle is only chargeable as a misdemeanor and often not taken seriously.
2. Sponsor legislation to treat repeat offenders more seriously. Repeat offenders convicted of auto burglary or breaking and entering a locked vehicle, in addition to any previous criminal conviction for a felony or burglary, would be required to be charged with a felony (rather than treated as a “wobbler”). Because auto burglaries are so often charged as misdemeanors now, they are typically treated less seriously by police, prosecutors and courts.
Several proposed bills might help reduce the epidemic of burglaries, including:
- AB 1326 (Cervantes and Cooper — Penalties for petty theft by repeat offenders)
- AB 3 (Bonta — repeat offenders and recidivism reduction)
- AB 875 (Cooper — Petty theft and subsequent convictions)
- AB 1065 (Jones-Sawyer — Shoplifting, organized retail theft arrests)
Assembly Bill 1326, noted above, has nine Assembly sponsors to increase penalties for petty theft, starting at one year of jail time to any person with three prior convictions. This is a ballot initiative requiring a vote of the people to become effective. As mentioned at your coffee, our membership would like to know if you will co-sponsor that bill and offer appropriate specified amendments to the bill?
Specific changes we suggest that would make AB1326 more effective and address San Francisco’s specific problems include:
- An amendment so it covers all residential and vehicle break-ins and auto and residential burglary as well as just petty theft.
- An amendment so that AB1326 increases penalties starting at one year of jail time to any conviction of a person with two prior convictions. Note that felony sentences are automatically cut in half, so that a convicted criminal sentenced to one year in jail serves only a six month sentence in practice (minus time served while awaiting trial).
Why do we and thousands of our neighbors care about this issue? San Francisco has the highest rate of auto break-ins of any major city in the U.S. Break-ins have almost tripled since 2011. A recent SF Civil Grand Jury report states that “an estimated 70 to 80 percent” of these burglaries are “committed by criminal street gangs” who are often “known to law enforcement and have multiple felony arrests, some for violent crimes.” Under these circumstances, we believe that conviction after two prior convictions should be sufficient to trigger additional penalties of at least one year in jail, if not prison. While we are not advocates for mass incarceration, we do support laws that thwart the relatively small number of criminal gang members who prey on our neighbors.
Certainly, additional social legislation may be necessary to encourage people to avoid a life of crime. However, there is often no motivation to turn around the lives of these criminals until they are first arrested and convicted. The current lack of a meaningful penalty for auto burglary encourages a criminal lifestyle, because it provides little incentive for law enforcement to devote any resources to apprehension and conviction of the individuals responsible. In addition, as illustrated by the recent killing of a photographer on Twin Peaks in broad daylight by a serial auto burglar, it is just a small step from taking a camera from a locked car to taking one from a human being with deadly force.
We also recognize that we may not have your comprehensive understanding of the criminal justice system or the legislative process. We welcome your legislation that would further these goals and have an impact on crime, either in lieu of or in addition to the above bills. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to meet with our group or talk about specifics.
Please let us know what action you intend to take. We look forward with enthusiasm to working with you in support of appropriate legislation.
Stop Crime SF