As Anchorage grapples with a sustained and significant spike in vehicle thefts, police and prosecutors want to make it easier to prosecute anyone caught riding in a stolen car, not just the driver.
An ordinance being introduced to the Anchorage Assembly next Tuesday would allow the passengers in stolen vehicles to be charged for riding with criminal negligence. That generally means any people in the vehicle — which could also include the driver — failed to perceive a risk that the car could have been stolen.
Under existing law, prosecutors have to prove the passenger knew the vehicle was stolen. Convictions are extremely rare.
"Because the mental state is so high, it's almost impossible to do," said city prosecutor Seneca Theno.
Anchorage police Chief Justin Doll said he and his deputies have been brainstorming ways in recent months to curb emerging patterns in property crime, stolen cars and drug use. Doll and Mayor Ethan Berkowitz have also discussed ways to give police more options to combat those problems, said Jason Bockenstedt, deputy chief of staff for Berkowitz.
Doll said changing the law could give police a good tool to charge people caught in stolen cars.
"Typically, many of the people in the vehicle, even as passengers, are also involved in criminal activity, whether that's property crime or illicit drug crime," Doll said.
The toughened law, still a misdemeanor, could result in a 10-day jail term and up to a $2,000 fine. The maximum jail sentence used to be six months, but was reduced under the criminal justice bill, Senate Bill 91.
Doll and other police officials have said they suspect stolen cars — recovered at a high rate by the police department — are being used as taxis between drug deals and other criminal mischief.
Right now, a person caught driving a stolen car can be charged with a felony, which is handled by the state district attorney's office. That consequence does not extend to passengers in the car at the time.
In 2014, the city instituted a new misdemeanor law against riding in a stolen vehicle, "knowing" that it had been stolen.
So far, that law has been little-used, according to Theno. Of several thousand cars stolen since 2014, just 35 of these cases have been referred to city prosecutors. Four have led to convictions, but the vast majority didn't even make it to court.
According to a memo from Theno to the Assembly, of the five cases that prosecutors pursued, two involved direct admissions that the car was stolen. One involved a family member of a vehicle owner, and two involved obvious stealing or theft tools in the car.
If the Assembly approves the new law, Doll said it could add another option for police when it comes to pursuing charges involving car thefts, for either passengers or drivers.
"The idea here is not to randomly sweep up everybody," Doll said. "But it's to give us a tool, when we're able to connect the dots and see people in the vehicle who have an apparent connection to criminal activity."
Beyond that, Doll said, police want people to stop using stolen vehicles to get places.