By Walter J. O’Neill, Jr.
Ocean Township – As a result of the recent increase in auto thefts in Monmouth County, New Jersey State Senator Vin Gopal announced that he has introduced legislation S-3385, that would target repeat offenders. Gopal and Senate President Nick Scutari held a press conference Thursday afternoon at the Ocean Township Police Station to address the situation they feel is dire and getting worse.
As of the end of November of this year, New Jersey has more than 14,300 reported vehicles stolen. That is 42 automobiles stolen every day. “This is a really important piece of legislation we’re going to do.” He added that car thefts are up 9% from last year and 41% over 2020.
“This epidemic, is truly an epidemic and a scourge especially here in Monmouth County,” said Pat Colligan, President of New Jersey PBA. He added that he has friends that live in this area who called him and told them that their auto insurance rates went up as a result of car thefts in Monmouth County.
Colligan added that the NJ Attorney General has allowed law enforcement to pursue car thieves. “We’re glad that the attorney general has allowed that to happen again so we can apprehend these suspects. Those pursuits not only put our officers in grave danger, but also the innocent residents going to and from school, to and from work in incredible danger. I applaud Senator Gopal and Senate President for advancing this bill.”
According to Gopal, S-3385, would target repeat offenders by establishing a “rebuttable presumption” of pretrial detention for the crime of carjacking, and for crimes of car theft and burglary where the defendant has a prior conviction or pending charges for one of those crimes. “This is really a targeted action on repeat offenders. For all the chiefs here today, they’re doing God’s work as are many of the police officers here. They’re dealing with it and a lot of unfortunate state polices that have happened over the last several decades that have kind of put this in a tough situation,” said Gopal. He added that they arrest these individuals, they get released, hit the streets and continue to steal.
Wayne Blanchard, President of the State Troopers Fraternal Association was also in attendance. “This past Monday you probably saw a new article on five residents of Georgia who came to Bergen County. They came 3,000 miles to New Jersey this past summer perpetrating a home invasion and shooting one of the residents,” said Blanchard. He also said that this time of year he attends holiday parties and sees people huddled up sharing Ring videos of people trying to steal cars. “Why should hard working residents of this state come home from work, tired and forgot that they left their key fob in the car and be preyed upon by these predators.”
Gone are the days of joyriding when a car is stolen and the thief would abandon it when done. Now, cars are used for other crimes or shipped overseas by organized criminal enterprises. “With this bill package we’re sending a message to the offenders, we’re going to punish them, increase the degree of crime. This package will incapacite these violent and repeat offenders,” Blanchard said.
“I have to thank my friend and colleague Senate President Scutari for pushing this legislation that will come up to be considered by the Judiciary Committee on Monday,” said Gopal. He added how there are homes in Monmouth County that have been victimized more than once, and these bills will take some really aggressive steps. “Some people like to throw around the term bail reform, but that happened before we got here, and now were looking at ways to get out of this,” said Gopal.
“This is a series of steps that the state is continuing to take, and I want you all to know that Senator Gopal has been in the forefront of this issue,” Scutari said. He added that a day does not go by that he does not hear from Gopal on how the state needs to take more action to prevent these thefts. “Senator Gopal is so totally focused on this issue that he has been pushing for some time.”
“We have to give law enforcement the appropriate tools so when they catch criminals they are punished and not walk away with a slap on the wrist,” said Scutari. He also said that law enforcement and elected leaders can’t do everything. “We’re doing these changes with a scalpel. Although it’s a large package of bills, this is directed at certain things that are happening such as car thefts and home invasions. We need to make sure that the individuals responsible for those crimes are being… not just punished but locked away.”
Also being introduced on Monday are bills, S-3389 which establishes crimes of theft of motor vehicles and receiving stolen motor vehicles as separate statutory provisions; provides extended sentences for certain persistent offenders.
S-3390, amends current law to make it a fourth-degree crime for a person to knowingly possess for an unlawful purpose a key fob that operates a vehicle owned by another person or possess a computer program commonly used to start a motor vehicle without an ignition key or fab.
S-3028, strengthens penalties for adults and juveniles who commit auto theft crimes and establishes mandatory minimum sentences for adults who recruit juveniles to commit auto theft.
S-3222, under this bill, “Predatory Towing Prevention Act” is amended to prohibit a towing company from charging fees to the owner of a stolen motor vehicle so long as the owner provides a copy of the stolen vehicle police report to the towing company.
Gopal stated that the legislature is looking into bail reform as a larger issue, but these bills are to help remedy the problem while they look into the bigger picture. Back in 2017, New Jersey eliminated its cash bail system, now relying on detention hearings giving judges the authority to decide whether to release a suspect prior to trail.