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Car Break-Ins Could Become Easier to Prosecute Under New California Bill

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A white parked car with a rear broken window.
A car with a broken back-seat window is parked next to Alamo Square Park in San Francisco on Aug. 9, 2023. (Car break-ins have been at epidemic levels in San FranTayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A San Francisco lawmaker hopes to get a handle on the rash of brazen car break-ins throughout the city by changing state law to make it easier to prosecute suspects.

The new state bill introduced Thursday by state Sen. Scott Wiener would expand the legal definition of auto burglary to include the act of forcibly entering a vehicle with the intent to commit theft. That change would allow prosecutors to pursue burglary charges without the current hurdle of first having to prove that a car was locked.

“This is a commonsense measure to address an issue that has been plaguing San Francisco for a long time,” Wiener said Thursday during a press conference at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, one of the city’s iconic tourist destinations that have become a hotspot for car break-ins.

The new bill — Wiener’s third attempt at such legislation — comes amid mounting public frustration in San Francisco and other California cities over the frequency of break-ins and the dearth of prosecutions.

Car break-ins and smash-and-grab incidents have spiked since the start of the pandemic, giving San Francisco the dubious distinction of having one of the highest car break-in rates of any major American city. This year alone, there have already been more than 15,000 car break-ins here, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, who joined Wiener on Thursday, told reporters. The vast majority of those incidents, she noted, have not been prosecuted.

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“My prosecutors could go into court today even having an eyewitness to an auto burglary, but without having an individual who owns or possesses the car say they locked the doors, could be required to dismiss the case,” Jenkins said.

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The city’s roughly 11,000 break-ins in the first half of this year resulted in just 86 felony auto burglary cases, about half of which actually ended in a conviction, Jenkins said. Many of those incidents happened in popular tourist destinations like the Marina District, Fisherman’s Wharf and near Civic Center.

In August, an incident at the Palace of Fine Arts epitomized the city’s struggle with the issue when thieves bashed in the window of a rental car that was parked just around the corner from where San Francisco law enforcement officials — including Jenkins and the police chief — were holding a press conference to announce new strategies to crack down on … car break-ins.

“Can you imagine being a tourist, going to a city and not only having your rental car broken into but having your passport stolen … then to return to the city you came from and tell everyone about this bad experience,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said at the same press event.

Sharky Laguana, CEO of Bandago, a van rental company, who also joined Wiener on Thursday, has far more first-hand experience than most with the city’s car break-in woes.

He said every van in his company’s fleet, often used by touring bands and artists, has been broken into at least two times in the city.

Laguana said he even once chased down a person who broke into one of the vans right in front of him.

“As a car rental company, we see so many of our customers get broken into,” he said. “Customers have lost film gear, music gear. … It’s frustrating how difficult it’s been to find progress on this issue.”

Cassandra Costello, executive vice president of San Francisco Travel, which promotes tourism in the city, applauded the new legislation.

“We need to send a message that auto burglaries are not tolerated in San Francisco,” she told reporters. “Having unnecessary red tape is hurting our ability to prosecute these crimes.”

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