Car theft rings are recruiting kids as number of stolen vehicles skyrockets in NJ, authorities say, vowing crackdown

Car theft rings are recruiting kids as number of stolen vehicles skyrockets in NJ, authorities say, vowing crackdown


Citing an alarming spike in stolen vehicles carried out by auto theft rings that recruit children and teens to help pull off their heists, a pair of state lawmakers on Thursday announced proposed legislation cracking down on ringleaders.

“This is a big business. These are corporations,” said state Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, referring to the scale and sophistication of gang-led organizations that swipe cars from driveways and parking lots only for the vehicles to end up on a freighter at the Port of Newark or to be used in a drive-by shooting.

At a press conference in West Orange, law enforcement officials and elected leaders said they’re increasingly frustrated not only with the rising number of thefts but with the brazen way they are occurring. They noted that many of these thefts are of high-end vehicles that are taken directly from driveways because the owners leave them unlocked with the key fob inside.

There have also been carjackings and cases where a suspect entered the victim’s home to steal car keys, authorities said.

And increasingly, car theft rings are recruiting minors to swipe cars or key fobs, paying them as much as $1,000 per vehicle, because they know juveniles will face less serious consequences, authorities said.

“The adults running the operation know that the juvenile is going to be treated with the kid gloves,” Acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens said at the press conference.

Although car thefts are on the rise nationally, New Jersey is far outpacing the national rate, authorities said.

Last year, 14,320 vehicles were reported stolen in New Jersey, a 22% increase compared to 2020, which also saw a rise over the previous year, according to State Police data. This year, the state has already seen more than 9,000 and could see as many as 17,000 by year’s end, law enforcement officials said Thursday.

The dramatic rise led New Jersey’s acting attorney general, Matthew Platkin, to form an auto theft task force in March. Federal lawmakers have called for a national task force to address the issue because many car theft rings operate across state lines and Newark’s port is a hub for shipping stolen cars overseas.

The legislation proposed by Codey and state Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, seeks to stiffen penalties for car theft and deter minors from falling in with a criminal enterprise.

A draft copy of the legislation says the measure “enhances criminal penalties for repeat offenders” of the crimes of motor vehicle theft and receiving stolen vehicles.

The proposal also specifically adds penalties for those found guilty of taking part in a car theft ring that includes a juvenile. It would upgrade certain offenses from second-degree to first-degree crimes, effectively doubling the potential sentence, lawmakers said.

A minor found guilty of receiving a stolen vehicle would be subject to 60 days community service for a first offense and at least 60 days in a juvenile corrections facility for subsequent offenses.

Bucco said the measure allows for leniency for first-time offenders. However, I added, “we’ve got to provide a deterrent. We have to provide a consequence for those who decide to get into this criminal enterprise.”

The legislation will be introduced next week, but the Legislature won’t be in session until September, meaning the measure won’t likely get a vote until the fall.

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SP Sullivan may be reached at ssullivan@njadvancemedia.com.

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