Fraction of auto theft suspects charged despite hundreds of arrests

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About half of all auto theft suspects arrested on Oahu last year ended up being charged with the crime.

We pressed the Honolulu Police Department for details after finding out that Honolulu prosecutors declined to press charges when a suspect was arrested inside a stolen car.

A spokesman said there was not enough evidence.

We also learned that even after HPD investigators recommended a suspect be charged, one out of every four times, prosecutors disagreed and declined to charge the suspect.

The victim in the initial case we reported on did not want to be identified, but told us his car was damaged after it was stolen.

He says someone broke into his house and stole his car keys, wallet, a laptop, and also his car. The prosecutor’s office then told us that the suspect was sitting inside the car with the engine off when he was arrested, but there were no witnesses.

We wanted to know how often this happens so we looked over the statistics provided by HPD.

There were nearly 3,900 auto theft cases in Honolulu last year. HPD opened 324 cases in which a suspect was identified and made 276 arrests. One-hundred-forty-two of them were charged by the prosecutor’s office.

So 51 percent of the suspects ended up being charged.

We also learned that there were 191 conferrals, i.e. when HPD recommends to the prosecutor’s office that the suspect get charged. Prosecutors declined 46 of them — that’s 24 percent, or one out of four.

Defense attorney Victor Bakke was formerly a prosecutor. He says that number seems high.

“If it’s getting past the police department’s smell test and it’s not that complicated a case, why is one out of every four cases being dumped?” he said.

Bakke admits prosecutors have some challenges proving car theft cases, especially when the suspects have the keys to the car, because they can say they didn’t know the car was stolen.

“That’s called a good faith defense and it can be a very good defense for many defendants,” he explained. “I just don’t think it raises probably to the rate of one in every four cases being dismissed.”

Bakke says prosecutors have the burden of proving that the suspect knew the car was stolen, and it helps if the car has been damaged in a certain way.

“If the locks are damaged, if the ignition is damaged, if a window is damaged, those are all telltale signs that the car has been stolen,” he said, “but without those, it can be very difficult to prove that the person caught driving the car actually knew that the car was stolen.”

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