To address the ongoing rash of auto thefts in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has announced support for pending legislation to address the problem, and also unveiled new plans to help stop car thieves in their tracks.

The move comes after increasing frustration and criticism from Republicans, who Murphy last week accused of stoking racial animus by complaining about crime. 

On Monday, state Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, called Murphy's agenda "mind-boggling pro-criminal."

During a news conference at State Police headquarters in Ewing on Monday, Murphy said he will sign a persistent auto theft offender statute into law as soon as it is passed by the Legislature.

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The governor said this will give prosecutors expanded options to seek tougher criminal consequences for repeat car theft offenders.

He also indicated support for legislation that would make possession and distribution of certain auto theft tools a crime, and a measure that would require anyone trying to sell a catalytic converter to present paperwork showing they were the rightful owner of the equipment.

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Monitoring offenders

The governor also said his administration will expand investing in enhanced pretrial services, to reduce the risk from individuals awaiting trial, including “pretrial monitoring, expanding the use of house arrest paired with location monitoring, and providing additional resources related to substance abuse, mental health and housing insecurity for defendants who may require such services.”

He stressed this will decrease the probability they will commit another offense.

Murphy said he is also directing the Motor Vehicle Commission to explore including in all vehicle registration paperwork “a checkbox allowing residents to opt into a program that would, if the car were to be stolen, automatically permit law enforcement access to the vehicle’s in-car navigator."

He said the idea is “to aid in tracking and retrieving it before it can either be shopped or put in a cargo-hold for overseas shipment.”

The governor said the MVC is also going to focus on messaging the importance of safely handling key fobs, because while this might seem like simple common sense, “the fact is many car thefts are being made easier to pull off because car owners have simply or accidentally left their key fob in the vehicle.”

Car keys left in a lock
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He also reminded New Jerseyans to keep the doors to their houses locked, so thieves can’t walk in, spot the key fob on a hook next to the door, grab it and take off.

Murphy noted while car thefts have shot higher over the past year they dropped 14% in September compared to September of 2021, and car thefts in October were down 12%.

When asked why car thefts have skyrocketed, Murphy said that "it’s probably like a lot of other things — somewhat related the mental health stresses of coming out of this pandemic I would think.”

Republican criticism

Testa said "Murphy’s soft-on-crime stance has helped fuel the current wildfire of auto thefts in the state."

"From opening the doors and letting the convicted criminals out, to tying the hands of the police and prohibiting them from detaining minors with marijuana or alcohol, Trenton has emboldened the bad-actors and handcuffed the good guys,” he said. “Is it any wonder towns local police are feeling abandoned and powerless?”

Testa said Republicans have introduced measures that have languished in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. One of them would expand the legal definition of "riot" in order to apply it to the deadly and illegal car rally this summer in Wildwood. 

“We have dozens of anti-crime bills ready for legislative action, but the Democrat majority has been slow to post these bills for votes,” Testa said. “New Jersey residents are tired of the foot-dragging and the laissez-faire attitude toward criminals. Safe streets are not a partisan luxury. They are something all Garden State families desire.”

Attorney General Matt Platkin said to stop the rash of car thefts “we are deploying every tool possible, creative legislation, technological investments, and traditional enforcement. Public safety will always be our top priority.”

Colonel Pat Callahan, the superintendent of the State Police, said having additional resources to fight car theft is pivotal.

“This is a top priority for law enforcement, taking down organized auto theft rings and stopping young people from becoming involved in this kind of crime, and we are making progress. With the public’s help we will continue to do so.”

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