During a 90-minute period on April 17, Santa Maria Police dispatch received nine calls reporting stolen cars, an example of a recent spike in thefts that officials are linking to a bail law enacted to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
The thieves struck between 6:14 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. the morning of April 17 in various parts of the city, including Biscayne Street and North Railroad Avenue. Santa Maria Police Officer Josh Yee believes the thieves, who have not been identified or arrested, cruised the city that morning looking for certain cars.
The string of thefts accounts for a portion of the 207 cars stolen in March and April of this year — a number four times higher than the 57 cars stolen during the same time period in 2019, according to Santa Maria Police.
Nearly half of those arrested by Santa Barbara County Sheriff's deputies are being released with citations instead of spending time behind bars due to an April 6 statewide emergency order meant to keep people out of jail due to coronavirus.
Officials are attributing the increase to emergency rule four, which was enacted in response to the coronavirus pandemic and adopted on April 6 by the California Judicial Council.
The rule sets bail amounts for serious offenses, such as violent felonies, while setting $0 bail for low-level offenders, such as car thieves, who are booked and immediately released with a citation to appear in court at a later time.
The rule keeps those accused of less serious crimes from languishing in jail as courts are forced to reduce services in response to the pandemic.
While the rule ensures jail space is reserved for only the most serious offenders, Yee believes car thieves may be emboldened by it.
"Car thieves who are caught are cited and released from jail and can be back in Santa Maria in a matter of hours," Yee said. "So there are no consequences for their violations."
So far this year, Santa Maria Police officers have responded to 490 stolen vehicle-related calls between Jan. 1 and April 24, Yee said, adding the number includes new reports and follow-ups, with some from other jurisdictions. The vast majority of those are for separate vehicles, he added.
A "good percentage" of cars are recovered and often in the same place they were stolen, Yee said.
Stolen cars include late 1990s and early 2000s Honda Civics and Accords, because they're easy to steal, and early 2000s Chevy Silverados for their parts, Yee said, adding that cars also get stolen for joyridng purposes.
In other instances, cars were stolen when owners left them running and parked as they walked away for a quick errand, presenting an opportunity for thieves, Yee added.
Yee recommends that owners use anti-theft devices, such as steering wheel locks, and that they lock their car doors.