The Multnomah County District Attorneys Office is cracking down on motor vehicle theft after legislative efforts to strengthen Oregon's anti-theft laws died in the 2018 short session.
District Attorney Rod Underhill issued a new set of guidelines to prosecutors in his office on March 23, instructing his employees to request prison sentences for some defendants with a history of repeat offenses.
"We prefer not to use a more punitive tool," Underhill says, "but we want and need to reduce the status of the stolen car problem in Multnomah County. We're taking a careful look at repeat offenders."
Last year, thieves nicked more vehicles from Portland streets than any time in the last two decades. The city has the third-highest rate of stolen cars among major U.S. cities.
Underhill instructed his deputies to request prison time for any repeat offender with one prior motor vehicle theft conviction in the last five years or two or more convictions no matter how old. His new guidelines also require asking for prison if a defendant has no prior convictions but is facing three or more charges related to motor vehicle theft.
That's a shift from how the office handled these cases in the past.
Every defendant in a motor vehicle theft case currently goes through the Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment Program—which often diverts people from prison sentences to other programs like probation or drug treatment. Underhill says these defendants will still go through the MCJRP process, but his office will no longer offer probation in plea deals for people repeatedly arrested behind the wheel of a stolen car.
The aim of this new policy is to focus enforcement on repeat offenders who steal cars again and again—sometimes without facing any consequences. A quirk of the law, created by a 2014 Oregon Court of Appeals decision, makes it difficult for prosecutors to secure convictions in auto-theft cases that had been much easier to pursue in the past.
In 2017, the state legislature considered a fix that would have increased the number of convictions for motor vehicle theft. That bill died because of a massive cost estimate and little appetite for increasing prison populations in a year when several bills were passed to do the opposite.
A second attempt to change the law made it to the Rules Committee, but died there because the committee chair, House Majority Leader Rep. Jennifer Williamson, anticipated a high cost estimate similar to the one produced in the 2017 session. Williamson did not request a formal fiscal impact statement for the 2018 bill, so it's unclear how much it would have cost the state.
The legislative fix would have made convicting car thieves easier. Underhill's policy shift won't do that. But it will put repeat offenders who do get convicted will stay behind bars for more time.
Underhill says his office has also been working closely with police to help them recognize opportunities to gather evidence needed to prosecute these cases.
"We are reanalyzing the case law, training and practices as it relates to local law enforcement and this office to make sure we're doing everything we can," he says. "With the limitations of the case law that exist, we're asking officers to work with us in looking over all aspects of a case for evidence."
Prosecutors will also treat some repeat motor vehicle theft charges as probation violations. Probation violations don't go through the same rigorous trial process as a new criminal charge and they can result in administrative sanctions even if prosecutors decline to pursue a new criminal case because of the difficulties created by the court of appeals decision.