Editorial from the Bend Bulletin

It’s ridiculously easy to get away with stealing a car in Oregon. The magic words to avoid jail time can be as simple as: I borrowed it from “a friend named Richey” or “a guy named Dave.” The Legislature needs to take another look at the law.

The problem occurs, in part, because of two Oregon Court of -Appeals decisions, according to reporting by Willamette Week. The first decision is from 2014, State v. Shipe. A pickup was reported stolen. Six days later, a police officer responded to a call at an apartment complex. He found Jerrol Edwin Shipe sitting in the driver’s seat of the pickup with the engine running and the lights on, listening to music. Shipe said he had driven the truck to the spot about 15 minutes earlier.

The officer arrested Shipe and conducted a search. He found bags of meth, bolt cutters, papers with other people’s names on them and a case labeled of all things — “crime committing kit.” The key that was used to run the pickup did not belong to it. Shipe told the officer he got the pickup from “a friend named Richey.” Shipe was charged with a variety of crimes, including unauthorized use of a vehicle.

In Shipe’s appeal, his lawyers claimed law enforcement could not prove he “knowingly” had taken a stolen vehicle. Prosecutors said it should have been obvious to anyone using the truck that it had been stolen, and Shipe was trying to cover for his girlfriend’s son. The Court of Appeals ruled it was too big a leap to assume Shipe knew the truck was stolen.

Then, in 2015, the state essentially built on the Shipe decision in a case regarding another stolen truck in State v. Korth. The defendant was pulled over driving a stolen truck with a valid key. The defendant said he got the truck “from a guy named Dave,” a “friend of a friend” who was “pretty transient.” He had no idea what Dave’s phone number was. Police found what are called jiggle keys in the truck and drug paraphernalia. Jiggle keys are keys that can be used to start some older cars. The defendant lied that he had not been in the back of the truck. The judge ruled the state didn’t have sufficient evidence to prove the defendant knew the vehicle was stolen.

Both those decisions may be reasonable. But they have essentially had the effect of making it impossible to successfully prove someone stole a vehicle unless they admit it. It doesn’t matter how implausible their story is or what the other evidence is. The Willamette Week found a woman who allegedly stole nine vehicles in seven months in Portland and served zero days of jail time. Car thefts in Portland have skyrocketed by about 50 percent in the past three years.

How much evidence should Oregon prosecutors need? In many states, it’s enough for prosecutors to have found a defendant in a stolen vehicle along with other evidence, such as a wrong key or a torn-up steering column. The Legislature rejected a bill in 2017 that would have tightened up Oregon law. It needs to look at it again.