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Licence to steal
Mar 02, 2007

A friend made an interesting comment while discussing a court ruling that a car thief must pay for his crime spree.

“It won’t stop hardened car thieves,” said Ernie. “All Manitoba Public Insurance is doing is making sure that he stays on the lowest rung of society. They are leaving him no choice but to continue to commit crimes for the rest of his life to survive.” 

The 18-year-old, who cannot be named because he committed his car thefts while a juvenile, was ordered to pay back $110,000 to MPI.

Called one of Winnipeg’s most prolific car thieves, the then 16-year-old went on three crime vehicle stealing sprees along with several co-accused. 

During the first crime spree in August 2004, the man and his partners-in-crime stole five vehicles. For this spree, the judge ruled that he has to pay back a total of $33,058.51 to MPI. For the second spree, he was ordered to pay back $65,072, and for the third spree, he was ordered to pay back $10,933.12. There is also a five-per-cent annual interest fee on any unpaid amount.

MPI has the right to garnishee any possible future money he may earn.

The three crime sprees resulted in the theft of five vehicles and damage to 38 others, one of which was a 2003 Ford Crown Victoria police car.

“This is going to follow him around like a dark cloud,” MPI spokesman Brian Smiley told the Winnipeg Free Press.

Indeed.

But, what Ernie has aptly pointed out is that the dark cloud following him around will be so onerous that the man will never be able to pay off the debt to MPI. And, he will have virtually no incentive to get a job to pay off the debt. That’s why he’ll just be another criminal statistic throughout his life.

MPI has said it will not be looking to recover the money owed in a lump sum, but the corporation has every intention of eventually getting its money back.

MPI has filed similar claims in the past and recovers about $300,000 a year in payments from car thieves.

But what of the 18-year-old? He is currently in custody on other outstanding property crimes and, according to media reports, doesn’t have a thin dime to squeeze between his fingers.

The most likely scenario is that this man, who is the eldest of seven children, will spend his life in a continual merry-go-round of jail terms, never earning a cent and

instead becoming a constant burden upon society (jail time interspersed with welfare).

The pursuit of money from car thieves is actually more a question of giving the perception that autopac is doing something about removing Winnipeg’s stigma as the “Car Theft Capital of Canada.” 

It’s a public relations exercise more than any type of deterrent, which is something else that Ernie pointed out.

Each year auto theft costs MPI about $28 million. A truly staggering amount that results from the fact that around 8,000 vehicles are stolen annually. During the first 28 days of January alone, there were over 698 attempted thefts which resulted in 479 actual thefts. The unsuccessful thefts more often than not result in a broken window or other damage to a vehicle.

When the statistics for all Manitoba are factored in, there are about 14,000 vehicles stolen every year.

What is equally worrisome is that auto theft has touched the life of virtually every resident of Winnipeg and Manitoba. It is so prevalent that everyone living in the city or province knows of a co-worker, friend or relative — or even themself — who has been a victim of this property crime. 

What MPI has correctly said is that auto theft isn’t just a property crime as it can also lead to serious injury and death. In 2004, four people were killed as a result of auto thefts and many others were injured, some of whom were the youthful offenders who decided to steal cars and take them on  joy rides. 

Since the statistics are so staggering, it is necessary to give the impression that something is being done to deter the crime. That’s why MPI pursues car thieves in the courts and has instituted a program to cover half the cost of installing immobilizers (the full amount for most-at-risk vehicles) to provide a deterrent topotential thieves. 

MPI also takes other measures such as refusing to grant driver’s licences to 

offenders, suspension of driver’s licences of offenders and refusal to insure 

offender’s vehicles. It can even go after offenders’ parents to recover money.

Here’s a question: How many of you know of such a person driving the streets without a licence and without insurance?

MPI also said it supports community-based initiatives to prevent car theft such as Citizens on Patrol and Combat Auto theft.

But, all the immobilizers in the world won’t prevent the continual damage to vehicles that results when a 14-year-old wants to take his buddies on a joy ride. 

What does a 14-year-old know about an immobilizer. He sees a car and wants it. He smashes a window to gain entry and then tries to start the car by breaking the steering column to gain access to the ignition. It won’t start. 

What does he do? 

He doesn’t stop. There’s still the prospect of a thrill ride. He keeps trying cars until he finds one that does start, and then off he and his buddies go. His driving inexperience causes him to run into other vehicles, but this still doesn’t stop him. The only thing that does stop him is the police arriving on the scene, or his damaging the vehicle to such an extent that it won’t run anymore.

An immobilizer is only a deterrent to the experienced car thief who knows better than to waste precious seconds on a car that won’t immediately start.

MPI is trying to stop auto theft. It’s taking some good steps. But, some things it is doing are doomed to fail, including pursuing the most hardened car thieves in the courts to recover costs. The thieves didn’t have a conscience when they stole the cars and probably won’t have enough of one to make any effort to pay back MPI.

Jail time may get auto thieves off the streets and give vehicle owners some respite until they are released and their next crime spree begins.