When I was in the military, I was stationed in Texas. My Lone Star friends loved to recite a myth that Texas had a law on the books, unchanged from the days of the Wild West, where the penalty for horse theft was death by hanging. Horses were valuable and indispensable in the Old West, and the apocryphal story aligned with the eye-for-an-eye folklore of Texas justice. In actuality, Texas never had such a law (horse theft in the 1850s was punished by two to seven years in prison). However, horse thefts caused so much anger that there were accounts of vigilantes hanging horse thieves in the 1800s.
The modern-day horse is a motor vehicle. Victims of motor vehicle theft may feel the same sense of anger as those Texas vigilantes and desire harsh punishment against perpetrators. Losing a motor vehicle to theft causes significant, long-term stress in a victim’s daily life. It’s also an expensive hassle. If the vehicle is found, it is often damaged. Victims end up paying tow costs, impound fees, and deductibles. Items in the vehicle such as money and tools are stolen. If there was mail or other identifying paperwork in the automobile, the owner may find themselves the victim of identity theft too.
Fortunately, motor vehicle thefts are rare. The State of Minnesota has roughly 3,400,000 licensed drivers and 7,400,000 registered vehicles. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, in 2019 (the last year that statewide statistics were available), there were 11,410 motor vehicles stolen in Minnesota. This represents 0.15% of all registered vehicles, or an impact to 0.34% of licensed drivers (assuming one vehicle per driver). In 2019, Pine County had 63 motor vehicle theft reports, representing 0.3% of the 22,240 vehicles registered in the county.
I reviewed the motor vehicle theft cases that my office prosecuted in 2020 and found some surprising statistics. For instance, 79% of the vehicles were stolen by someone the vehicle owner knew, whether it was someone in the household or a friend. Roughly 74% of the vehicles were stolen from a residence (including recreational property), 16% from the casino, and the remaining from a lot or workplace. Of the residential cases, only 18% were stolen by someone not known to the homeowner; in those incidents, the keys were in the vehicles.
Unfortunately, if you’re a victim of motor vehicle theft, there is not a lot of good news. Motor vehicle theft cases are difficult to solve. Of the 11,410 statewide reports mentioned earlier, only 1,780 (16%) were cleared by an arrest. Unless your vehicle has a location device or you know who stole your ride, the chances of catching the thief are small. If your vehicle is located, there usually is no meaningful forensic evidence. DNA does not transfer well to vehicle surfaces. Finding a useable fingerprint is nearly impossible (prints are on common surfaces, such as door handles, steering wheels and gear shifts; when fingerprints are stacked on top of the many other prints on these surfaces, there is no way to separate them).
Even when a person is found in possession of a stolen vehicle, it may be difficult to prove that the possessor was the one who stole it. The possessor may have innocently acquired the vehicle from the thief; however, if the person knew or should have known the vehicle was stolen, the person may be charged with possessing stolen property.
Although motor vehicle thefts are felonies, they are classified as property crimes under Minnesota law. This means that despite all the harm they caused the victim, most convicted car thieves do not end up in prison under Minnesota’s Sentencing Guidelines unless they have a long felony record.
The silver lining is that protecting yourself is simple and free: always lock your vehicle and take your keys, even if your vehicle is in your driveway or garage. Motor vehicle thieves are not sophisticated – I rarely see cases where a vehicle is “hot-wired” or locked doors are opened with a “slim jim”. Thieves roam parking lots and properties looking for unlocked vehicles. When one is found, the thief will enter the vehicle and look in the usual places for keys (under the visors or floormats; in the console or glovebox). If a key is located, the thief will drive away – stealing a vehicle within seconds and causing the vehicle owner months or years of headaches that could have easily been avoided.
Do not store your keys near your vehicle, such as on a wall in your garage, or on a hook near the back door of your house – this is only inviting a thief to take them. If you do not trust or know someone in your household, then hide your keys. I’ve had a surprising number of cases where people staying at the casino invite strangers into their hotel rooms only to later discover their keys and vehicle missing after the party is over.
If you have ATVs, especially those kept at recreational properties, hide the keys and consider securing the vehicles with a chain. Pine County receives many ATV theft reports from recreational property owners where a thief broke into a garage or shed and easily drove or hauled away the ATVs.
I recently saw a humorous car insurance commercial that ended with the tagline: “Life sucks without a car.” Indeed, it does; so, take precautions and protect your vehicle.