Bill to Fight Vehicle Break-In Epidemic Introduced in State Senate


News from the Office of District Attorney George Gascón



January 23, 2018

Twitter: @GeorgeGascon

CONTACT:     ALEX BASTIAN (415) 553-1931     |    MAX SZABO (415) 553-9089



SB 916 – authored by Senator Scott Wiener and sponsored by District Attorney George Gascón – closes a loophole in the Penal Code that allows some auto burglars to escape consequences


Sacramento –  Today, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced a bill, sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, to close a loophole that hampers prosecutions for automobile break-ins. Senate Bill 916 allows prosecutors toprove that a defendant committed an auto burglary by showing that he or she broke a car window to get into the car.  Currently, proving that the defendant broke a window is often deemed insufficient.  Prosecutors must prove that the car door was locked in order to meet the elements established under the auto burglary statute.  In order to meet this element, victims of auto burglaries are often asked to testify that their doors were locked.  However, when a rental car is burglarized - a common occurrence in San Francisco - the tourist is often unavailable to testify that their car door was locked.  Enabling the prosecution to introduce evidence that a car window was shattered or that the car door was locked makes it easier to enforce the spirit of California’s auto burglary law.


SB 916 is co-authored by Assemblymembers David Chiu (D-San Francisco) and Phil Ting (D-San Francisco).


San Francisco is in the midst of an auto break-in epidemic.  In December, the San Francisco Police Department reported that larceny theft from vehicles had increased by 26% over the past year, and previous reports indicated that auto break-ins have tripled since 2010. Although break-ins have increased dramatically, the arrest rate has dropped to 1.6 percent. While prosecutors take action in over 80% of cases presented, Senator Wiener and DA Gascón are hoping to increase that number further by closing a loophole in California law that has allowed some offenders to escape consequences.


“The community’s skyrocketing number of auto break-ins are a stain on our quality of life,” said District Attorney George Gascón.  “For visitors it can ruin a vacation to our amazing city and make people less likely to want to return in the future. This legislation will close a loophole that has allowed some suspects to escape consequences, and there are additional efforts underway that will give San Franciscans needed relief from the frustration and broken glass that has defined the city’s epidemic of auto break-ins.”


“The explosion in auto break-ins we’re experiencing is unacceptable, and we need to ensure our police and district attorneys have all the tools they need to address it,” said Senator Wiener. “When residents or visitors park their cars on the streets, they should have confidence that the car and its contents will be there when they return. Damaged cars and stolen property can significantly harm people, and shattered glass all over the ground undermines safe neighborhoods. SB 916 closes a loophole in the Penal Code that can lead to cases being dropped or charges reduced even when the evidence of burglary are clear.”


Under current law, to secure a conviction when an auto burglar is arrested, one of the elements prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that the vehicle was locked.  Unfortunately, the fact that a victim’s window is broken does not, by itself,establish that the vehicle was locked.  In addition, because victims are often asked to testify that their vehicle was locked and because a disproportionate number of victims are tourists driving rental cars, the prosecution is at times unable to secure the victim’s testimony (since they live elsewhere) about the door being locked.


Common circumstances where it can be difficult to prove the locked component include:


·        If an offender broke a window and entered the vehicle to complete a theft and then proceeded to leave the vehicle door open or unlocked;

·        If an offender broke a window and the victim returns to their vehicle and opens the door before police take a report and establish that the vehicle was locked;

·        If an offender broke a window and the victim forgets whether they locked their door(s);

·        If an offender broke a window and the victim is unavailable to testify that their door(s) were locked.


Given the locked-door requirement, a number of auto burglary cases with clear evidence that the defendant broke the car’s window cannot be charged as a felony.  When prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to prove an auto burglary or theft was committed, a vehicle break-in where the window was broken must be dismissed under the law.


SB 916 adds “or when forced entry is used” to the locked-door requirement of the auto burglary statute.  This means that prosecutors can prove an auto burglary occurred by either showing that the car was locked or, alternatively, that a window was broken.