City looks to get tougher on vehicle prowlers

If you enter a fenced area or a building without permission in the City of Auburn, and police catch you at it, they can bust you for trespassing.

But get into a car or truck that may be parked on a city street and just sit there, it’s not trespassing.

Not yet, anyway.

Auburn Police Chief Bob Lee and City Attorney Dan Heid met with the City Council on Monday night to talk about a proposed ordinance that would make it a crime merely to enter a vehicle without permission.

At the root, Heid said, this proposed stiffening of the law is about addressing the gap that exists between vehicle prowling and merely illegally occupying a vehicle.

As Heid explained, for police to have probable cause to arrest someone for vehicle prowling, and for prosecutors to convict or find someone guilty of prowling, both need something that gives an indication of an intent to commit a crime related to the entry into that vehicle.

That’s a requirement for burglary, Heid said, and for a person to be charged with or convicted of vehicle prowling, a prosecutor needs something to show that that person got into the vehicle illegally with an intent to steal something, or to commit some other crime while they are in there.

“This crime of vehicle trespassing would give us something that the police could use if they don’t yet have vehicle prowling, or if they don’t have it at all because it never occurred. Somebody just illegally occupying a vehicle (becomes) a trespassing concept rather than a theft or larceny-related violation,” Heid said.

Say police get a call from a resident who sees somebody suspicious in their neighborhood, Lee said, and police get there and find a suspicious person sitting in a car.

“Well, it’s not their car, and we did see them sitting in the car, so we’re not going to hold back and see if they damage the console trying to get the radio out, or damage the ignition to try to steal the car. We’re not going to wait. That’s not what you expect of us,” Lee said.

“We’re going to go up and contact this person. And if they are sitting in the car, and they haven’t started to commit their crimes yet, they are still trespassing. This is the idea to help prosecution get these folks,” Lee said.

The law could also apply to something who’s just standing outside a vehicle, Heid said.

Noting that the City of Auburn borrowed the ordinance language from another jurisdiction, Heid said it appears that police there did not want to be restricted by someone who is not “completely in” a vehicle.

“If you insert something into a vehicle, that can be all it takes; you don’t have to be fully in it,” Heid said.

Indeed, Lee added, a person could be in the back of a pickup truck and still be busted for trespassing.

“It’s tough to catch a person when they’re prowling. But more likely than not, we’re going to get there quickly and find somebody inside before they start committing a crime. It’s not frequent, but it happens maybe a dozen, two dozen times a year,” Lee said.