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Massachusetts tries to shake image as car theft capital

Massachusetts has many labels, but none least cherished than its tag as stolen car capital of the world. For 14 consecutive years the Bay State has led the nation by a wide margin in auto theft rate.

Despite modest progress toward fewer motor vehicle larcenies in recent years throughout the commonwealth, there is little to suggest Massachusetts is about to turn things around or be overtaken by some other state.

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Much could depend on the deterent effect of a months old statute providing mandatory one-year imprisonment for repeat car theft offenders and on pending legislation that would make it harder to dispose of stolen vehicles.

The latter, pushed by Massachusetts Gov. Edward J. King, calls for the licensing of all car disposal businesses, including the so- called "chop-shops," which cut up autos either for metal salvage or for parts.

These operations, currently unregulated, would be subject to inspections from time to time and would be required to keep records, including the vehicle identification numbers, of all vehicles crushed or dismantled.

Such a law, according to its backers, would appreciably reduce the traffic in stolen vehicles, especially in new or late model cars, the sum of whose parts often are worth worth more, even on the black market, than whole car.

The inspection and record keeping also would place in jeopardy those who swap vehicle identification numbers from cars crushed or shreaded with those on stolen autos being transported out of state for sale.

Auto thefts, which totaled 57,712 last year in Massachusetts, cost Bay State car owners an average of $75 in additional vehicle insurance premiums, reports Anne Kramer of the Coalition for Auto Insurance Reform (CAIR).

Getting rid of the illegal "chop shops" and tightening some laws, including one that allows persons convicted of stolen car fraud to buy auto insurance coverage at the same price as others, are necessary to make significant inroads in reducing car thefts, she asserts.

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Illinois and New York license and inspect car crushing and parts salvaging operations. At least four other states -- Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, and Texas -- also require record-keeping by such businesses.

And all but one of these anticar-theft measures have gone on the statute books within the past two years, as the national stolen auto as well as that in most states has continued to climb.

Latest FBI crime statistics show that car thefts climbed 9.6 percent nationally from 991,611 in 1978 to 1,097,187 in 1979. Every 29 seconds a vehicle was stolen.

Although the 57,712 vehicle larcenies in Massachusetts was fewer than in several other states on a per-100,000 car basis (the FBI's rating comparison), the Bay State's rate still was among the front-runners at 1,144 auto thefts per 100,000 cars, more than double the national average of 498.5, points out Dennis Curran, assistant legal counsel to Governor King.

Next to the commonwealth, the highest stolen vehicle ratio is 793 in neighboring Rhode Island, followed in that order by California, 738; Hawaii, 715 ; Nevada, 704; New York, 704; Connecticut, 703; New Jersey, 696; Alaska, 616; and Michigan, 602. In 1978 the same states were in the top 10 in stolen car rates but in a slightly different order.

With a theft rate of 162.4 per 100,000 cars, North Dakota appears to be the safest state in that respect.

Critics of the pending Massachusetts legislation contend that it would accomplish little more than adding a new Bureaucracy with unnecessary records keeping.

They hold that the commonwealth already has the right to inspect car crushing and metal shredding operations. Boosters of the legislation, however, disagree and question how far such surveillance could go without violating the unauthorized search prohibitions of the US Constitution.

While passage of the licensing legislation, which has made it successfully through the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, is by no means certain, its boosters say they are guardedly optimistic.

They view it as a logical next step to the mandatory-sentence law enacted last summer. That statute requires those found guilty of car thefts to make restitution and imposes a minimum automatic one-year prison sentence for the second and subsequent convictions for such offenses.

Besides Massachusetts at least two dozen other states have been considering anticar theft legislation this year. Thus far, however, it appears no major measure has passed.

How states compare on auto theft State Total auto Theft rate per thefts 100,000 cars Alabama 12,064 320.1 Alaska 2,501 616.0 Arizona 12,085 493.3 Arkansas 4,225 193.8 California 167,563 738.3 Colorado 13,345 481.4 Connecticut 21,905 703.2 Delaware 2,882 495.2 Florida 38,298 432.3 Georgia 21,304 416.3 Hawaii 6,546 715.4 Idaho 2,460 271.9 Illinois 60,327 537.2 Indiana 23,381 433.0 Iowa 7,829 269.7 Kansas 6,479 273.9 Kentucky 9,035 256.2 Louisiana 16,421 407.9 Maine 2,610 237.9 Maryland 20,232 487.6 Massachusetts 66,051 1,144.9 Michigan 55,440 602.1 Minnesota 13,366 329.2 Mississippi 4,013 166.8 Missouri 19,988 410.6 Montana 2,447 311.3 Nebraska 4,296 272.9 Nevada 4,945 704.4 New Hampshire 2,882 324.9 New Jersey 51,045 696.2 New Mexico 4,437 357.2 New York 124,343 704.5 North Carolina 12,523 223.4 North Dakota 1,067 162.4 Ohio 47,099 438.9 Oklahoma 12,355 427.2 Oregon 9,759 386.2 Pennsylvania 45,679 389.4 Puerto Rico 11,273 327.6 Rhode Island 7,367 793.0 South Carolina 8,684 296.2 South Dakota 1,199 174.0 Tennessee 16,091 367.4 Texas 72,836 544.2 Utah 4,587 335.6 Vermont 1,602 337.1 Virginia 12,826 246.8 Washington 17,057 434.5 West Virginia 3,799 202.3 Wisconsin 12,587 266.7 Wyoming 1,635 363.3$ X Source: FBI 1980 Uniform Crime Report

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