In my first six months living in Portland, Oregon in 2000, someone smashed my passenger window. They stole a jacket I left on the front passenger seat, and some irreplaceable audio recordings I was transporting between work and home. I was pissed. I quickly learned a hard Portland truth: you can never, ever, leave anything visible on your car seats around here. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paper bag full of old burger wrappers or an empty box; if thieves see potential, they’ll break in to get it. The problem has persisted. Shards of broken glass still sparkle on our sidewalks, and people drive with plastic bags taped to their cars to keep out the rain until they can get their windows replaced.
Things have gotten worse. Now thieves just steal your car. Despite its small size, Portland has the third highest car theft rate in America, right after Baltimore and Detroit. By October 2017, more cars had been stolen here than in all of 2016. At Willamette Week, staff writer Katie Shepherd figures out why. It turns out, it’s because of a culture of crime and intravenous drug use, and because lax laws make car theft difficult to prosecute. Cops arrest the same people over and over. That’s how easy stealing cars here is. Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Ryan Lufkin is working to change that by closing a loophole. Until then, hide your stuff. Don’t let your car idle to heat up on winter mornings. Use The Club. Not that it matters; parking here is a roll of the dice. So how did this start?
The case involved Jerrol Edwin Shipe, a 49-year-old former retirement home worker who was arrested in 2012 while sitting in a stolen truck in Washington County. He was convicted but appealed the verdict, claiming he didn’t know it was stolen and that he had gotten the truck from “a friend named Richey.”
Evidence at the scene suggested Shipe knew he was driving a stolen truck. He had bolt cutters, multiple sets of keys, and a locked case labeled—amazingly—”Crime Committing Kit.” The truck had other stolen property inside. The key Shipe had been using to start the engine did not belong to the truck.
Shipe’s appeal claimed that prosecutors could not prove he had “knowingly” taken possession of a stolen vehicle. Prosecutors argued that the evidence should have made it obvious to any reasonable person that the truck had been stolen.
The Oregon Court of Appeals judges ruled in Shipe’s favor. Chief Appellate Judge Erika Hadlock wrote in the July 23, 2014, decision that the state was asking the court “to accept too great an inferential leap” in determining that Shipe knew the truck was stolen when he took possession of it. (Hadlock declined comment to WW on her ruling.)
It set a precedent: Carrying tools associated with car break-ins or even operating a car with the wrong key was not enough evidence to prove that someone sitting in a stolen car knew that it was hot.