A 6-year-old law allowing creditors to report vehicles as stolen if the owner fails to make payments has police scrambling for a way to avoid potential violence.
The problem is, officers don’t know if the person they are pulling over is a hard-core criminal or just someone who has fallen on hard times, said Sgt. J.D. Hough of the Arizona Vehicle Theft Task Force.
As a result, all drivers of vehicles reported stolen will be ordered out of their
vehicles by multiple police officers with guns drawn. Such drivers will also be handcuffed.
"Because of this law, there’s a chance of taking down a mom and pop who’s never been arrested before — at gunpoint," Hough said.
"Officer safety has got to come first," Hough said. "Any one of these can go bad at any time, whether you’ve got a righteous (stolen vehicle) or a financial situation."
Under the law, lending institutions can report vehicles stolen to police if the owners are 90 days late on payments, have ignored a certified letter for 30 days and have knowingly not given up the vehicle.
Since January, Mesa police have entered 40 such vehicles into statewide and nationwide computer databases. The Phoenix Police Department has entered between 75 and 100.
"In my opinion, since this hasn’t been an issue over the last five years, some finance companies have just become aware of the law," said Mesa police Sgt. Dave Mauser.
Police in Tempe, Apache Junction and Scottsdale said they have not heard from any banks, but they remain concerned that officers may one day run across such a vehicle.
Members of the task force, made up of officers from Chandler, Mesa, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and the Arizona Department of Public Safety, meet to discuss how to respond to such "stolen" cars, Hough said.
The officials agree they have no choice but to stop all drivers of stolen vehicles at gunpoint, he said, though many agencies do not arrest suspects in the debt cases. Instead, the suspect’s vehicle is towed and the case forwarded to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to review for possible charges. So far, the county attorney’s office has declined to file charges in most of the cases, Hough said.
Officials are also considering entering information into their computers to notify officers that the owner is behind on payments.
"Maybe, if an officer is aware of the situation, he can tone it down a little bit and not conduct a complete felony stop," Mauser said.
These situations are not only potentially dangerous but also irksome for busy officers, Hough said. Arizona is No. 1 in the nation for stolen cars without the banks adding to the list, he said.
One goal of the task force is to change the law. Such matters should be considered civil, not criminal, Hough said.
From Wayne Lilly’s point of view, however, the crime is vehicle theft — nothing less. Lilly, officer manager at BHFC Financial, said his company has been reporting one to two vehicles stolen per month for years.
"It’s very much a last-resort situation," Lilly said. "These people are driving ($15,000-$20,000) cars, and they’re not paying for them. Oftentimes they don’t even have insurance on them."
If a vehicle is reported stolen, that means all conventional means to track them down have failed, Lilly said. Those efforts include telephone calls, letters, repossession companies and skip tracers, he said.
"When you come up empty, what are you supposed to do?" Lilly said.
Police have advice for those being pulled over.
"Just obey whatever the officer says. Don’t make any quick, fast movements," Mauser said. "When things are settled down, then you can ask why you were pulled over like that."